Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Amistad – his first film released under the banner of DreamWorks SKG – is based on the true story of the 1839 mutiny, led by Joseph Cinque, aboard the slave ship La Amistad. After 53 kidnapped Africans, bound for slavery on a sugar plantation in Cuba, manage to gain control of their captors’ ship, they end up in a U.S. Supreme Court battle over their future. Former U.S. President John Quincy Adams makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release.
David Franzoni writes the screenplay which gets a rewrite by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) on Spielberg’s request.
John Quincy Adams is played by Anthony Hopkins after Sean Connery turned down the part. According to Spielberg, some US actors were furious with him for casting a British actor as The President as they felt the role should have gone to an American performer – which does not prevent Spielberg from casting Daniel Day-Lewis, another British actor, to play the US President in Lincoln (2012), another historical drama focussing on African-American history. Hopkins delivers the entire seven page courtroom speech in a single take.
Spielberg casts Djimon Hounsou in the pivotal role of Cinque, after considering more than 150 actors for the part (including Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Cuba Gooding Jr.). In a 10 day crash course, Hounsou learns the tonal language of Mende for the film.
Abolitionist Theodore Joadson, the character portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is a fictional composite of several historical figures – a storytelling technique that Spielberg has also applied to Schindler’s List (1993).
The impressive cast also includes Matthew McConaughey, Nigel Hawthorne, Anna Paquin, Stellan Skarsgård, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Arliss Howard. Harry A. Blackmun (who served as US Supreme Court Justice from 1970 to 1994) plays US Associate Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story.
The driving force behind Amistad is executive producer Debbie Allen. In 1978, Allen stumbles upon a literary journal that tells of the mutiny on La Amistad. However, when pitching the story to Hollywood studios, Allen is discouraged by studio executives, both black and white. No one wants to see a movie about slaves, they tell her. After watching Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Allen feels he is the man who could turn Cinque’s story into a compelling film.
Spielberg takes on the challenge of turning the complex historical events around the Amistad uprising into a feature film because he feels that everyone – especially his own children – need to know about the story, so infrequently taught in history class. Spielberg wants to transform a historical footnote into a human drama that transcends time and place. Academics later criticize Amistad for historical inaccuracy and the misleading characterizations of the Amistad case as a “turning point” in the American perspective on slavery.
Principal photography wraps after a mere 48 days. Post-production is done rarely with Spielberg, because he is already working on his next film, Saving Private Ryan (1998). Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski, avoids the clichés of the historical genre as “the story required photography that was not too pretty. (…) The movie is about a slave rebellion in 1830, so it would have been wrong to apply lighting that conveyed romantic notions.” Spielberg adds: “I didn’t want to bring modern times – which I would equate with long, slick dolly shots – into the nineteenth century.“
Production designer Rick Carter uses the art of Francisco Goya as a primary source for the look of the film. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter dresses hundreds of extras in tattered loincloths while at the same time designing historic wardrobe for lawyers and abolitionists as well as a queen and a president.
In contrast to The Color Purple (which features a score composed by Quincy Jones), Spielberg decides to assign John Williams for the difficult job of creating a score for his second film about an African-American topic. It is the 24th year of their collaboration and their 15h film. Williams delivers a beautiful score with a stirring main theme: The “Dry Your Tears, Africa” adaptation of a 1967 poem is a rousing, victorious song with spoken African vocals.
Amistad receives mainly positive reviews and is nominated for four Academy Awards: Anthony Hopkins for Best Actor in A Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Music.
According to film critic Roger Ebert “Amistad, like Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, is […] about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. […] Schindler’s List works better as narrative because it is about a risky deception, while Amistad is about the search for a truth that, if found, will be small consolation to the millions of existing slaves. As a result, the movie doesn’t have the emotional charge of Spielberg’s earlier film — or of The Color Purple, which moved me to tears. […] What is most valuable about Amistad is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims.”
Nevertheless, Spielberg’s double salvo (releasing The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad in the same year) does not perform as expected. With an estimated budget of $36 million, Amistad achieves only a small profit, earning ca. $44 million.
Spielberg sums it up: “I kind of dried it out and it became too much of a history lesson.”