'Amistad' omits some truths that must be told

December 30, 1997|By Elmer P. Martin and Joanne M. Martin

BLACK people who think that Steven Spielberg's latest movie ''Amistad'' is about black heroes taking their freedom by any means necessary are doomed to disappointment upon seeing the movie.

While the film is loosely based on the true story of a group of Mende people from Sierra Leone, who in 1839 overpowered their Spanish captors aboard the slave ship La Amistad, it is largely a tale of white hero worship.

The movie gives little time to the bloody slave mutiny led by Sengbe Pieh (called Joseph Cinque in the United States). Instead, Mr. Spielberg devoted most of the two and a half hours to the jumbled aftermath in the U.S. justice system, where white lawyers defend the poor Africans.

Middle Passage

To the movie's credit it does present a few powerful, perhaps unforgettable, scenes of the horrors of the Middle Passage.

But complex white historic figures are presented as noble men interested in the welfare of black people; their evil, racist sides are not revealed. For example, federal Judge Andrew Judson declares the captives were actually free men and not Cuban slaves. However, no mention is made of the fact that an earlier Judson ruling put a damper on attempts to educate black children in Connecticut for years.

Likewise, Maryland's own Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that ruled to free the Amistad Africans in 1841, would in 1857 hand down the infamous Dred Scott decision, declaring: ''The black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect.''

Even the main hero of the movie, John Quincy Adams, had such a solid record of political indifference and callousness toward the plight of black Americans that abolitionists in his own state dubbed him the ''Madman of Massachusetts.''

Mr. Spielberg also fails to show the price the Amistad Africans had to pay for their freedom while in the hands of their white friends and defenders. First, they spent almost their entire two years in America behind bars. Second, their presence created a carnival-like atmosphere, which the white abolitionists took advantage of by putting the Africans on display like animals in a zoo.

Over a three-day period, more than 3,000 whites paid 12 cents apiece to gawk at the Africans.

The movie also omitted any reference to the extent to which the New England white missionaries worked zealously to rid the Africans of their names, language, customs and religious beliefs.

The greatest disservice the movie renders to the American public is to grossly distort race relations in 19th-century America.

This distortion is brought about in part through Theodore Joadson, a fictional character played by Morgan Freeman, who is supposed to represent a composite of black folks in New England during that time.

Joadson freely associates with white abolitionists, something that wasn't done under New England's strict racial codes. Joadson even sits in courtrooms with the white characters and roams the halls of the Supreme Court.

Nowhere in America during the 1840s (and for many decades after) was a black man allowed to sit in a courtroom even as a witness or defendant.

Mr. Spielberg gets so carried away with his integrationist myth that he even has Joadson and Sengbe visit John Quincy Adams at his home, an event that never took place.

If the movie had presented history truthfully, it would have shown that African Americans were not enthralled by the Amistad affair. They saw it basically as a legal anomaly and a crude lesson in American hypocrisy.

Sure, they saw Sengbe and the other Mende Africans as heroes for having killed white oppressors for freedom and wanted them free. However, black Americans felt a deep sense of betrayal because none of this great moral fervor and feverish activity was directed at their plight.

The court case centered around whether or not the group of Mende people had been made the legal property of their Spanish captors and whether or not kidnapped black men could be equated with merchandise. Most black people in America had already been declared to be the legal property and merchandise of white men. They were treated like the Amistad's African cabin boy, Antonio, who was ordered returned to his captors by the courts -- a fact that was omitted from the movie.

The slave ship mutiny that Frederick Douglass and other black leaders of that time were excited about was the Creole, not the Amistad.

The hero of the Creole mutiny was Madison Washington who had escaped from slavery in Virginia, but was recaptured when he went back to rescue his wife. Washington and 325 other slaves were put on the Creole to be sent to New Orleans, but somewhere between Hampton, Va., and New Orleans, he and 19 black men overpowered the white slavers and had the ship sailed to the Bahamas, a British colony.

An outraged U.S. government demanded their return. But since the black islanders had surrounded the Creole to protect the black Americans, the British returned the ship but not the slaves, fearing a revolt.

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