Spielberg’s story of slaves recognizes the role of religion
FEW WOULD deny that Hollywood movies exert a powerful homogenizing force on society. For whatever reason, filmmakers have traditionally toed a line that favors a secular, white point of view. Nowhere is this more apparent than in films about North American race relations: films such as A Time to Kill and Ghosts of Mississippi regularly marginalize their non-white characters while expunging any hint of religion from their white heroes (but not, alas, their white villains).
Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is a curious exception. The film, which tells the true story of 53 slaves who were tried before the U.S. Supreme Court for the 1839 mutiny of their master’s slave ship, is already the centre of debate for its behind-the-camera racial politics. But only a handful of critics seem to have noticed that the film brings religion to the fore, recognizing it as a key element in American history; those that do remark on the religious content tend to treat it dismissively, as if it were a cheap sentimental ploy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, Amistad recognizes that Christianity, like it or not, played a part in supporting slavery. During the harrowing ‘middle passage’ sequence, which chronicles the kidnapping, selling and systematic execution of African slaves en route to America, a priest is seen giving his blessing to a Portuguese slave ship; later on, prosecutor William Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite) uses the Book of Genesis to argue before the courts that it is only natural for one human being to subordinate another.
And while the film acknowledges the evangelical nature of the abolitionist movement, it does so grudgingly. The slaves are puzzled, if not angered, by the sight of “miserable-looking” evangelists who loiter outside the prison and sing off-key hymns, and the film suggests, somewhat improbably, that leading abolitionist Lewis Tappan (Breaking the Waves’ Stellan Skarsgard) might have been prepared to sacrifice the slaves to his cause: martyrdom, he tells his fictitious friend Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), has always been a “valuable” means by which Christians effect social change. (In actuality, Tappan wanted the slaves to go free so he could send them back to Africa as Christian missionaries, but that’s another story.)
But never mind how the film portrays Christians; it’s what the film does with Christ that sets it apart from the rest of its genre. In one moving sequence, the film cuts back and forth between two scenes: in one, a slave named Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) pages through an illustrated Bible, explaining to Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), the slaves’ spokesman, that Jesus was bound and tried and executed because he stood up for the poor and oppressed, and that after his death he came back to life and went to heaven; in the other, a Catholic circuit court judge (Jeremy Northam) prays in a church the night before he must render his verdict. His superiors, including President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), have given him the case thinking that his religion, being identical to that of the Spanish Queen (Anna Paquin), would make him easy to manipulate; instead, having turned to God for guidance, he surprises everyone by freeing the Africans.
Holabird immediately appeals the case to the Supreme Court, itself composed of several slaveholders, and this prompts former president John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to argue on behalf of the abolitionists. Where the historical Adams argued for several hours on the finer points of the law – the slaves were ultimately freed on a web of technicalities – the movie Adams appeals to the court’s sentimental memories of former presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (never mind that both of them owned slaves themselves). The historical Adams later wrote that his anti-slavery beliefs were inspired by the Bible; the movie Adams draws on a mix of civic religion and the veneration of one’s ancestors, an idea he borrows from Cinque.
Perhaps these closing moments show the Hollywood machine reverting to its tried-and-not-so-true formula, but Spielberg and company do go to some lengths to break the mould. Amistad does not impose a happy ending on history; every culture represented, be it African, European or American, has the blood of slaves on its hands and is engaged in some sort of civil war by the end of the film. It is to Spielberg’s credit that he recognizes the complex role of faith within that struggle.
John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) with Cinque (Djimon Hounsow).