By Saada Branker
When Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad graced movie theatres late last year, the reaction was bittersweet. Some movie moguls hyped it as being an important epic about African slavery. Cynics denounced it as another feel-good Hollywood flick for bleeding heart liberals.
With only four Oscar nominations — none of which are for best movie — Amistad has now been officially snubbed. It seemed an unlikely outcome for a Steven Spielberg movie that held so much promise. In the months following its release, Amistad floundered through the controversy of a pending lawsuit and was drowned by more palatable, less weighty Hollywood movie offerings like Titanic, (another movie about an historic ship which garnered 14 nominations and enjoyed record sales).
For myself, the biggest disappointment with Amistad lay in the fact the movie represented a missed opportunity for a better understanding of this particular episode of American slavery. But many people — black and white — will never realize this, because they missed the movie altogether. It was, as my friend coined it: “Amistad or ah-missed-dat.”
I went to see Amstad within the first few weeks of its wide release, excited at the prospect of finally seeing a movie about slavery on the big screen. After it was over, I had to hide my disappointment with a weak smile while walking out of the theatre. “It was okay,” I mumbled. Ahead of me, my girlfriends shook their heads as one said over and over: “That movie was so shit.”
What we were disappointed about was how the film’s director chose to tell the story of the painful experience of our African ancestors, an experience that resonates into the lives of every black person today. Something was missing in the film for many people. Instead of emphasizing the personal experiences of the Africans, Hollywood put a great emphasis on how Americans including former U.S. president John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins, managed to save the day.
Amistad did have its moments, but it fails as an evocative historical drama.
Now’s film critic, Cameron Bailey, was one of those who left the movie disappointed. “Spielberg’s strength is invoking emotion, but it’s almost as if he didn’t care enough to tell this story on that level,” said Bailey. “It’s similar to him telling the story of the Jewish Holocaust through the Nuremberg trials and not through the real emotional events.”
In his Now review Bailey presents a litany of criticisms: “Amistad begins its story not with [the main character] Cinque’s life in Africa but with the ship’s revolt, with Africans slaughtering Spaniards. The Africans are photographed like extras in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Spanish crew are shot as individuals. The Africans speak untranslated Mende in scenes. The Spanish is subtitled in English.”
The disappointment felt by black moviegoers with the movie’s representation seemed to heighten the belief that blacks are in a better position to make movies about their own experiences.
Mesvin Aman, and Ethiopian freelance writer living in Chicago said he disliked it because of its “sanitized view of slavery and racism.” “The first error in the movie made was to give the false impression the Amistad case awoke the moral conscience of America, resulting in the abolitionist movement from the White House to the white community,” says Aman. But slavery, as Aman said, was abolished much later because it was no longer economically viable.
I expected white people, who were just learning of this historical event, to find Spielberg’s film educational as well as entertaining. But for many blacks growing up when Alex Haley’s Roots made prime time TV, the need to see our history represented on screen has become increasingly important. When I asked Now magazine’s Bailey why he believed some blacks liked Amistad despite its shortcomings, he said: “We’re hungry for anything about history and one of the most shrouded aspects of history is the slave trade. Movies like Amistad come along and it offers that history. We run to it.”
People, mostly black, also ran to another film about the enslavement of Africans, but in much smaller numbers. A 1993 movie, Sankofa, depicted the emotional repercussions of slavery expressed by African captives working on a plantation. Its Ethiopian writer and director, Haile Gerima, clearly recognized what Spielberg missed. And even though this hard to find film was produced on a much smaller budget, it succeeded in evoking powerful moral rage and empathy from its audience when I caught a screening last week at the Ontario Science Centre. Bailey also say Sankofa, but during the year of its release at the Toronto Film Festival. “There were 600 seats — packed. At the end of the film, people stood up, applauded and cheered. They were moved. I have yet to see people jumping up after Amistad wanting to go out and make changes,” he said. That night at the Ontario Science Centre, a panel discussion after Sankofa encouraged some people to address their anger and hurt at local black associations which offer support programs. Quite a change from the publicity-driven antics of mainstream films that give away t-shirts and posters.
Despite my criticisms, Amistad was important for me because it initiated the kitchen table talks and debates about slavery and how it makes me feel to have other people tell its stories. I could also see how for some viewers, it dispelled the notion that the enslavement and oppression of African people is a page only in African history books. My friends and I know we can’t blame the American movie makers for not getting it entirely right. “Hollywood is the business of providing entertainment,” said Aman, a Chicago freelance writer. “The only way to prevent falsification of history is to give historians the pen, the people the voice and the opportunity to dialogue before embarking on projects that were and are important aspects of history.”