'Amistad' teaches truths all Americans should hear

December 17, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Jamar Royster stood on Baltimore City College's parking lot, a youth of a different disposition from just three hours before.

Then, the City College senior had jested with Lamar Shields -- one of the school's Spanish teachers -- that he didn't want to ride the school bus to the Senator theater.

"I don't want to be all scrunched up in a seat," Royster told Shields, hinting that he wanted to drive over.

But Royster joined several hundred other City College students for the journey to the Northeast Baltimore theater to see the movie "Amistad," which has been called a Steven Spielberg film but more correctly should be called a Debbie Allen film.

Royster returned a more serious young man, one not bashful about giving his opinion about the film.

"It was very educational," Royster said. "Very impacting. It gives me a new outlook on life. It makes me think about what my ancestors went through. I can't think of myself as being in that situation. Those ships had very bad conditions. We as young people take a lot of things for granted. We're very lucky for the life we have."

Royster moved from the parking lot to City College's auditorium, where more students gave their reactions to "Amistad."

Sahlah Lawson, a sophomore, said she had first read about the hero of the Amistad story, Sengbe Pieh (more commonly known as Joseph Cinque) in a book called "Afro Bits from A to Z." But there were only about two paragraphs on the Amistad revolt, and she remembered little. Shields refreshed her memory in his Spanish class, but Lawson felt the film had the most impact.

"I was familiar with the story, but seeing it threw me back into the time period," Lawson said. "It gave me feelings and emotions. This movie was powerful. I never looked at the slave trade that way -- from the eyes of the slave."

Kimberly Simmons, a junior, said some scenes in "Amistad" left her in tears.

" 'Sankofa' and 'Roots' gave only a small picture of the slave ship," Simmons said. "This movie was powerful and gut-wrenching."

One young woman said she wasn't a City College student but attended the film with her sister, who, she said, recently gave birth.

"In the scene where the mother sacrificed her life for her child, rather than have it subjected to such cruelty, I would have done the same thing," the young woman asserted. "We're taught about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but Cinque was every bit as much a hero."

Eleventh-grader Jessica Steward also used the word "powerful" to describe "Amistad."

"It's not just for black people," Steward observed. "It's for all people. The movie helped me understand what I learned in U.S. history."

"Amistad" is, indeed, a story every American should have on the "must-see" list. Royster first heard about the film on Oprah Winfrey's show and said he made it his business to see it.

"I'm shocked it's not being shown at other theaters," Royster lamented. It's not just a shock. It's an outrage. Here we have a story that shows Americans at their most noble. An aging John Quincy Adams arguing before the Supreme Court the case of Sengbe Pieh and his compatriots. A Supreme Court -- with seven of its members slaveholders and its chief justice, Roger Brooke Taney of Dred Scott infamy -- voting that the rule of international law prevailed and that the Africans were not mutineers or pirates but free men who exercised their right to liberty.

It's that rare moment in American history of which both white and black Americans can be proud. But what are we watching?

"Scream 2," which is playing on 11 screens in the Baltimore area to only one for "Amistad." We'd rather see a film about teens getting sliced to ribbons than John Quincy Adams' soaring eloquence on the Amistad case or Sengbe Pieh and other Africans boldly resisting enslavement.

We can be certain the almighty buck is the bottom line here, but what does it say about Americans that we continually avoid films, books and television shows about our history even when it's good?

"Amistad," in what perhaps is a fictional scene, has Sengbe Pieh asking a similar question.

"What kind of place is this?" he wonders about the 1840s America in which he has landed.

It's a question Sengbe Pieh might well ask today.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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