Spielberg's 'Amistad' celebrates the best about this country


WASHINGTON -- Recently Hollywood has been an object of much derision, much of it merited, particularly when dishonest and propagandistic movies have been made about American history. The name Oliver Stone comes to mind.

Now comes Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," a redemptive movie, in two senses. It redeems Hollywood's reputation as a place where movies can be made for grown-ups. And "Amistad" celebrates America's capacity for rising from sin to something akin to nobility.

A truthful film

For the third time in eight years Hollywood has produced a nuanced, truthful film about America's racial history. "Glory," released in 1989, was the true story of a black regiment in the Civil War. And also in 1989, "Driving Miss Daisy" was an utterly convincing depiction of a long relationship of a black servant and a white Atlanta family.

"Amistad" begins in 1839, when 53 West Africans, who had been captured for the purpose of enslavement and shipped to Cuba, seized control of the ship La Amistad, sparing two of the Spanish crew, who the Africans commanded to set a course for Africa. But during the nights the Spaniards altered course heading northwest, and the slaves -- or were they still? were they Spanish property? -- were arrested on Long Island and jailed in Connecticut. There their journey back to Africa became a legal odyssey through three trials, culminating in the Supreme Court.

The movie has two heroes, Cinque, the leader of the shipboard insurrection, and the American legal system. The trans-Atlantic passage of the slave ship is the most harrowing movie realism since Spielberg's "Schindler's List." The courtroom drama, which Mr. Spielberg has necessarily truncated, is disentangled in Howard Jones' book, "Mutiny on the Amistad." The legal controversy involved the meaning of treaties, maritime law, property law and natural law. This stew was stirred by meddlesome President Martin Van Buren, who feared that if the Africans were freed, the South would punish him in the 1840 election.

One of the movie's most deft moment is a menacing cameo appearance by South Carolina's Sen. John Calhoun, simmering with resentments and spoiling for a fight. One can imagine his sulfurous reaction when the lawyers for Cinque and the others argued that what the Africans did on La Amistad was simply exercise a right of self-emancipation grounded in the law of nature. If that law applied on ship, why not in South Carolina?

An unlikely hero

The movie may make an unlikely hero of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams. His presidency was unsuccessful but as ex-president he returned to the House of Representatives and at age 73 helped argue the Amistad Africans' case in the Supreme Court. In the climactic scene in the court, Adams says, "Who we are is who we were." That is, because America had a founding moment, Americans are defined by the Founders' principles.

Adams was not quite as cuddly as Anthony Hopkins plays him, but his performance in the court in 1841 was even better than the movie's brief version. He did, as the film shows, cite the Declaration of Independence, a copy of which hung on a pillar in the room where the court sat. But he did not simply invoke Jeffersonian rhetoric. He and the Africans' other lawyer argued that their clients were under the protection of the state of Connecticut, where they won the case that the Van Buren administration appealed. Their argument, rich in subsequent irony, was that states' rights protected the Africans from the federal government.

There are limits to what even as conscientious a director as Mr. Spielberg can do in making didactic movies. Audiences are not buying tickets to a seminar. However, Mr. Spielberg is helping to fill a void created by a dereliction of duty on the part of academic historians.

Until recently, the writing of American history was one of the nation's most important forms of moral reflection. Historians wrote what David Harlan calls "morally instructive histories -- histories that taught us how to speak in the first-person plural." Often the subjects of such histories were the greatness of great men and the nobility of American ideals. In his new book, "The Degradation of American History," Mr. Harlan writes that most historians now disdain such histories as "moralistic and elitist."

Paying a debt

But those were the sort of writings that moved Martin Luther King Jr. to say that reading history made him feel "eternally in the red," that is, with an unpayable debt to those whose lives are imperishable examples of worthy aspirations. Actually, King paid his debt by leading such a life. Mr. Spielberg has made a down payment on his by making a fine movie about such lives.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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