When Steven Spielberg first heard the name of the African slave whose shipboard uprising his current film, "Amistad," is based upon, the director's association was with a more recent episode in U.S. history.
"The last time I heard the name Cinque," Spielberg says, sounding out the African name Sengbe as it was pronounced by Spanish slave traders (sin-KAY), "it was not in relation to the man who led the revolt on the Amistad and found himself redefining American civil liberties. I thought of the name in association with the SLA and Patty Hearst."
That Cinque was the notorious bank robber, urban terrorist and Symbionese Liberation Army leader (a.k.a. Donald DeFreeze) who died in a fiery shootout in Los Angeles in 1974. As a black revolutionary, he had taken--or, depending upon your view of history, misappropriated--the name as a tribute to one of the most heroic figures of the 19th century, now almost completely forgotten.
Still, if there is one thing that would make you more famous than dying in a hail of gunfire on the evening news, it is being cast as the hero of a Spielberg Christmas movie. This one stars Anthony Hopkins as former President John Quincy Adams, Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin Van Buren, Morgan Freeman as a leader of the abolitionist movement and Matthew McConaughey as the attorney who first presses the slaves' legal case.
Those names were touchstones of the history Spielberg had been taught in school. But he had never heard of the Spanish schooner Amistad, which set sail from Cuba on June 28, 1839,with 53 Africans as cargo. On the third day, a Spanish seaman taunted Cinque with the threat of being killed and eaten upon their arrival.
That night Cinque led a bloody revolt against the crew, keeping only two Spaniards alive to sail the ship back to Africa. Instead, the Amistad wandered up the North American coastline for two months, finally anchoring off the tip of Long Island and being boarded by the U.S. Navy. What followed was an even longer voyage through the early U.S. judicial system.
"When I first heard the story of La Amistad, it was news to me," Spielberg says. "I guess my reaction was, 'Really? Did that happen?' "
The story of the Amistad uprising is John Wayne meets John Grisham, action on the high seas and in the high court. The reason few people have ever heard of it is that it was a drama about the fate of black slaves. And in America, the story of the African slave trade has historically been viewed in what is essentially a white context: First, as the original sin of the Founding Fathers, and then as the cause of the Civil War.
Producer Debbie Allen, who spent 10 years unsuccessfully trying to get the story made into a movie before connecting with Spielberg, attended predominantly black Howard University in the '70s and never heard about the Amistad incident even there. "This film is going to create a dialogue about the very nature of history, the way in which people are taught," Allen says. "Whether you're talking about art, or literature, or music, the real history has just been castrated--left out--and great historians have done it. It's beyond racism, I think. It's just one culture wanting to be dominant, and not really acknowledging the contribution of a culture that was far beyond and centuries ahead."
Spielberg fell in love with the story as soon as Allen told it to him, and always intended to direct it, though the project took on some historical heft of its own as the first movie he has directed for DreamWorks, the studio he founded with David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. But Spielberg never intended "Amistad" to serve as a morality tale.
"It's not a sprawling indictment of slavery," Spielberg says. "To indict slavery is more powerful if it's more personal, and so this is a much smaller, more focused story than I think people are expecting."
It will surely be one of the first feel-good movies about slavery. "The bad guys are vanquished at the end, and the good guys are able to sail home and live happily ever after," Dr. Henry Louis Gates, a professor in the department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard and one of the film's many consultants, says in a telephone interview. "That's remarkable. It's rare when you see black people participate in violence to defend themselves, be vindicated by the American legal system, and be recognized as the true patriots they are, like Patrick Henry.
"I think it's important for all of us to realize that people just didn't go willingly into slavery," Gates adds, "and that the American legal system was not immune to appeals for justice from black people. There were times when the legal system worked for black people, though by and large it didn't."
In fact, it was only 16 years after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Amistad case that the infamous Dred Scott decision was handed down, making it possible for escaped slaves to be returned to their masters.