'Amistad' debate shows us its value


Yesterday, the movie "Amistad" spread to three more theaters, upping the total number of show times in the area to a less-than-whopping 12. By comparison, the new James Bond movie opened in 12 theaters with 86 show times.

This has caused some distress among those wanting to see "Amistad." State Del. John Leopold, a Republican from the 31st District in Anne Arundel County, was so concerned that the new Steven Spielberg movie was playing only at the Senator Theatre in Baltimore that he had his legislative assistant, Catherine Dorsey, call several movie distributors in hopes they could explain why this excellent film wasn't in more theaters.

Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre, said the superior quality of "Amistad" is the very reason it's opening at a trickle.

"Quality films like 'Amistad' and 'The English Patient' are strategically released," Kiefaber said yesterday. "The most prestigious way to showcase a film is to put it in a prestige theater like the Senator -- with the 900 seats, the curtain, the large screen. You don't have 'Flubber' playing in the movie next door. It's a way of showcasing a film that gets it off to its best start."

The theory behind such distributing, Kiefaber continued, is that people will spread the word that " 'Amistad' is a powerful, beautiful film." The movie is being distributed by Spielberg's Dreamworks studio. Kiefaber said Dreamworks officials were smart to distribute the film in the way they have.

"They are parceling the movie out," he said. "This is the way it was done years ago. You don't see it done that much anymore."

Kiefaber said he had been "angling to run" the movie even when it was being filmed. The Senator's thrice daily showings have been virtually packed, with audience members -- evenly divided racially -- engaging in stimulating lobby debates after each show.

"The main objections seem to be that the film isn't totally historically accurate and that Spielberg made the British seem to have the moral high ground," Kiefaber observed. It seems the Anglophobes charge the British were opposed to the slave trade for their own selfish interests, not moral reasons.

But at the point in history of the Amistad incident -- 1839 to 1841 -- the British did have the moral high ground. The British navy was the only one regularly patrolling international waters hunting down slave ships. The British would later lose the moral high ground with that despicable Opium War business and by reducing large chunks of Africa and Asia to colonies.

But such is the importance of a film like "Amistad" -- it has people debating history. In an America where the average television talk show has been reduced to topics like "My Teen-age Daughter Dresses Like a Slut," a film that challenges us to look at history is a welcome respite.

Marylanders, especially, should be flocking to see "Amistad." There's simply so much of Maryland in there.

The Amistad that appears in the film is the Pride of Baltimore II. Its crew was on hand during the filming. Kiefaber said some crew members were so distressed they had to leave the set during the scene where Africans were roughly treated as they left the Amistad.

The choice of the Pride to appear as the Amistad was perfect. The real Amistad was built right here in Baltimore, one of many watercraft constructed in what was a major industry for the city: building small, fast slave ships that could elude and outrun the large British ships seeking to curtail the slave trade.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that ruled to free the Africans was the much-maligned Roger Brooke Taney of Maryland. Some 16 years after the Amistad decision, Taney read the opinion in the Dred Scott case, uttering the infamous words "black men have no rights white men are bound to respect." Did senility and poor judgment creep up on the man in 16 short years?

Frederick Douglass, the black editor, orator, abolitionist and statesman of the 19th century, worked as a caulker in Fells Point in the shipyard of Walter Price. According to Maryland historian Dickson J. Preston, Price's yard specialized in building slave ships of the Amistad type.

"By working there," Preston wrote in "Young Frederick Douglass," "Frederick made a direct although perhaps unwitting contribution to that horrendous [slave] traffic."

That was in the years 1836 and 1837. The Amistad revolt occurred in 1839. Is it possible Frederick Douglass could have helped build the Amistad? It would be one of history's classic ironies if he did.

Pub Date: 12/20/97

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