Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” is centered on the legal status of Africans caught and brought to America on a Spanish slave ship. The Africans rise up and begin a mutiny against their captors on the high seas and are brought to trial in a New England court. The court must decide if the Africans are actually born as slaves or if they were illegally brought from Africa. If the Africans were born as slaves then they would be guilty of murder, but if their being brought here from Africa is illegal, they had the right to defend themselves.
This as not such a simple issue since the slave trade had been banned by treaties at the time of the Amistad incident in 1839. The movie starts on board the Amistad. On the ship the leader of the Africans, Cinque, frees himself from his chains and frees the rest of his tribe. They slaves are being taken from a Havana slave market to another destination in Cuba. The two men who bought them are spared, and promise to take the slaves back to Africa. Instead, the Amistad is guided into US waters, and the Africans end up being tried in a New England court. Luckily, it is a Northern court.
If the slaves had ended up in the South they would have no chance of getting off. The slaves are first defended by Roger Baldwin a well-off real estate lawyer who bases the case on property law. Only slowly does Baldwin come to see his clients, the slaves, as human beings. Also, two Boston abolitionists, an immigrant called Tappan, and a former slave named Joadson are in the defense. Together these men work to try to free the 53 slaves aboard the Amistad. After the slaves are tried and freed at the New England district court, they must go to the Supreme Court.
In he Supreme Court John Quincy Adams, former president, who is fighting for the freedom of all men, defends them. He gives an 11 minute speech and persuades the Supreme Court to free the slaves as individuals because all men are free under the Declaration of Independence. The slaves are freed once and again and choose to return to their homeland. However, Cinque discovers that his village has been destroyed and the rest of his family has already been sold into slavery. This is where Cinque emerges as a powerful character. He was once a free farmer living in peace with his now lost wife and family.
His wife and his village are shown, which helps to understand how cruelly he and the others were all ripped from their lives and ambitions. Cinque spoke no English at the beginning of the movie, but he learns some while he is in prison. A translator is found who helps him express his consternation at the legal system that may free him but will not correct or even address the real crime against him. Cinque learns enough of America to see it’s faults. Also, in this movie is President Martin Van Buren, who is portrayed as a feeble man of compromise who wants only to keep the South off his back.