It is a bitter irony, much noted by critics, that many films dealing with the civil-rights movement and its legacy — Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, and, most recently, Ghosts of Mississippi, to name three prominent examples — have minimized the role of black activists within their own movements while extolling the (at times fictitious) heroism of white people who came to their rescue. But what is equally true, and not so frequently noted, is how these films secularize their white heroes and, through them, the process of racial reconciliation. If religion is visible at all, it is typically found among racial minorities or on the lips of white villains.1
Ghosts of Mississippi is a classic case in point. The film tells the true story of Bobby DeLaughter, an attorney who successfully prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for murdering civil-rights activist Medgar Evers some 30 years before. In the film, the black activist and his family take a back seat to the white lawyer and his domestic troubles, while the film’s only clearly articulated reference to religious belief comes in a racist rant of De La Beckwith’s. But when I interviewed the real-life DeLaughter for a secular publication, he told several stories of the prayers that had been said by himself, by members of Evers’s family, and even by the foreman of the jury. These prayers, he believed, helped bring the killer to justice, but there is no trace of them in the film.
So how does one restore religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to historical narratives such as these? For conservatives such as the Christian Film and Television Commission’s Ted Baehr, the answer is, in effect, to seize control of the mainstream — that is, to return to the days when Christians assisted Hollywood in creating a central, homogenous, American myth. But in a world marked by increasingly diverse audiences and a proliferation of independent filmmakers, religion stands a greater chance of recognition if filmmakers are encouraged to broaden their minds in general and reflect the pluralism — ethnic, religious, and otherwise — that already exists.
It is in this respect that Steven Spielberg’s Amistad proves particularly interesting. Amistad is a mainstream film, with impeccable production values and recognizable actors. But as the first film Spielberg has directed for DreamWorks, the studio he co-founded four years ago with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, it also enjoys some of the artistic freedom one associates with an independent film. And it is this mix of the mainstream and the marginal that marks Spielberg’s curious interpretation of a pivotal moment in the history of American racial and religious politics.
The basic facts are thus: In the summer of 1839, in the coastal waters of Cuba, 53 slaves on board a schooner named La Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) broke free one night and killed all of the crew but for Josè Ruiz and Pedros Montes, their nominal owners. The boat was then captured by American naval officers, who promptly claimed “salvage rights” over the slaves. Ruiz and Montes also claimed the slaves, as did the Spanish government, while the American courts pondered whether or not it was within their jurisdiction to deal with the matter at all.
Into this bewildering array stepped an abolitionist coalition led by Lewis Tappan, a wealthy, devoutly evangelical New York merchant. Tappan saw in the Amistad slaves an opportunity to generate sympathy for his cause and, should the slaves be freed, an opportunity to begin missionary work in Africa. For his part, President Martin Van Buren went out of his way to appease the Spanish government, encouraging Judge Andrew T. Judson to send the slaves back to Cuba on a boat he had already prepared, should the proper verdict be rendered. Van Buren did this to keep the approval of the southern states on the eve of his re-election campaign, but to some it appeared that he was “tampering with our courts of justice,”2 and this ultimately became a factor in Van Buren’s defeat in the 1840 election.
Because the abolitionists could demonstrate that the mutineers had not been born slaves but, rather, had been taken illegally from their homes in Africa, Judson decided in their favor. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which also decided in favor of freeing the slaves in early 1841. Within a year, most of the surviving Africans had returned to Sierra Leone, accompanied by Congregational missionaries intent on furthering the work of the church — but that’s another story.
Because these Africans were slaves for only a short period of time and never did settle on any one plantation, Spielberg cannot do for American slavery what he did for the Holocaust in Schindler’s List. He cannot show the day-to-day lives of third- or fourth-generation American slaves or the masters who had to live with them and continually justify their relationship. But he does convey some of the horrors of the slave trade in a harrowing sequence that chronicles the kidnapping, selling, and systematic murder of African slaves en route to the Americas. And through it all, he keeps his focus on the Africans themselves.
Lest the white characters overwhelm the story once the slaves are brought before the American courts, the film also introduces a fictitious black abolitionist named Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman). Joadson is a former Georgia slave who maneuvers between Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), defense attorney Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), and former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) and unites their efforts. It may not be going too far to say that, within the film, it is Joadson who makes it possible for these people to work together, and without him they would go their separate ways.
Joadson is Amistad‘s main attempt to give African Americans mainstream representation. And to preserve this characterization, the film seriously downplays — even eliminates — the racism that existed in the northern states and would have dogged Joadson’s steps at that time. Joadson is also remarkably free of religious convictions; those belong, instead, to such real-life abolitionists as Lewis Tappan, and while Spielberg highlights their religious motivations — it’s not often a film allows the positive use of a word like righteousness — he does so in a way that reflects Hollywood’s distrust of evangelical Christianity.
The abolitionist movement, as represented here, is distinctly lacking in political savvy. Groups of abolitionists loiter both outside and inside the prison to sing off-key hymns; the slaves wonder who these “miserable-looking” people are and suspect that they must be entertainers. One of the abolitionists coerces a slave named Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) into touching his Bible; Yamba snatches it from his hands in anger. And Tappan seems a bit too fond of martyrdom; in one scene, as he concludes that the Africans will probably be executed, he remarks that they might be more valuable to the cause in death than in life.
Tappan almost certainly did not take this stance. There were, indeed, abolitionists who failed to articulate their ideals in the political arena, but the historical Tappan does not appear to have been one of them. Tappan and his friends believed so strongly in the slaves’ freedom that they briefly considered taking up arms to break them out of jail,3 but they decided against this course of action because — apart from the fact that it would have compromised their pacifism — they hoped the Amistad case would vindicate their faith in the American courts and in their own ability to persuade the public. If they could win this case by working within the system, then perhaps America as a whole could be cleansed of slavery from within.
Tappan also looked beyond the abolition of slavery and foresaw the need to integrate freed slaves into American society. To that end, the abolitionists did a lot more than just sing at the Africans; they actively educated them in the English language, taught them hymns, and introduced them to the gospel. Traces of this are preserved in Spielberg’s film, but in a way that is careful not to offend pluralistic sensibilities. At no point do we see the Africans receiving any religious instruction, and at no point do we hear of Tappan’s plans to make missionaries of them. However, Spielberg does show Yamba paging through his Bible and, simply by looking at the illustrations of Gustave Doré,4 Yamba comes to an amazingly comprehensive knowledge of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Spielberg cross-cuts this scene with another, in which a district court judge named Coglin (Jeremy Northam) prays in church the night before giving his verdict. In a fictitious subplot, President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) has removed Judson from the case and replaced him with Coglin because he thinks Coglin, being the grandson of a Catholic and “insecure” about his heritage, will be easier to manipulate. Instead, Coglin surprises his superiors by setting the slaves free, and the film makes it quite clear that it is his faith that enables him to do so.5
But it is not merely his personal piety that enables him; it is also his willingness to identify with the beliefs of his ancestors. And this is a theme that Amistad draws upon heavily near the end. Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), who instigated the original revolt, declares that he will call upon his ancestors for help when he stands before the Supreme Court; Adams, in his speech before the Court, borrows the concept and invokes the memory of past American presidents, solemnly declaring, “Who we are is who we were.” Despite the fact, which goes unmentioned, that some of these presidents were slaveowners themselves, Adams implies that it is by returning to their roots that Americans will overcome slavery in the end. (Tappan and his coreligionists are notably absent from the story once the case goes before the Supreme Court.)
And so Amistad promotes a pluralist vision of cooperation between different ethnic and religious groups and in doing so acknowledges, in part, the historical role of Christians. But it also pulls the story in a direction more congenial to contemporary fashion, a direction that allows for a sort of inner spirituality but is uneasy with that spirituality when it asserts itself in the public arena. It is to Spielberg’s credit that he has broadened his point of view — and that of his audience — thus far. But there is still a ways to go.
Peter T. Chattaway reviews films for a variety of publications in Canada and the United States.
1. Glory (1989), directed by Edward Zwick and set during the Civil War, reflects one aspect of this dichotomy the night before the soldiers go into battle. The black troops conduct an impromptu outdoors religious service, while the white officers — one of them fictitious, the other the son of abolitionist parents — sit in a tent and nurse their drinks.
2. From an article in the February 10, 1840, issue of the Hartford Courant, quoted in Christopher Martin, The Amistad Affair (Abelard-Schuman, 1970), p. 168.
3. B. Edmon Martin, All We Want Is Make Us Free: La Amistad and the Reform Abolitionists (University Press of America, 1986), p. 25.
4. Doré, born in 1832, was still a boy at this time and would not publish his illustrated Bible until 1866, but why quibble?
5. An argument could be made that Hollywood feels more at ease relating to Catholics than it does relating to evangelicals. In Amistad, a Catholic is inserted into the story where none existed before, and he steals some of the evangelicals’ thunder, sentencing Ruiz and Montes to prison even though, historically, it was Tappan’s lawyers who charged them with assault on behalf of the Africans and thus had the Spaniards imprisoned. A similar dynamic can be observed in Robert Zemeckis’s film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact, which transformed Palmer Joss from a realistically broad-minded fundamentalist preacher into a lapsed Jesuit.
— A version of this article was first published in Books & Culture.