Amistad (film)

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This is the most important case ever to come before this court. Because what it in fact concerns is the very nature of man.
Sir, this war must be waged on the battlefield of righteousness.

Amistad is a 1997 historical drama film based on the notable mutiny in 1839 by newly captured Mende slaves who took control of the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue cutter. It became a United States Supreme Court case of 1841.

There remains one task undone. One vital task the Founding Fathers left to their sons before their thirteen colonies could precisely be called United States. And that task, Sir, as you well know, is crushing slavery.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by David Franzoni, based on the book, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition (1987), by the historian Howard Jones.
Freedom is not given. It is our right at birth. But there are some moments when it must be taken. (taglines)

John Quincy Adams

  • Well when I was an attorney, a long time ago, young man, I err...I realized after much trial and error, that in the courtroom, whoever tells the best story wins. In unlawyer-like fashion, I give you that scrap of wisdom free of charge.
  • [to the court] Your Honor, I derive much consolation from the fact that my colleague, Mr. Baldwin here, has argued the case in so able, and so complete a manner, as to leave me scarcely anything to say. However...why are we here? How is it that a simple, plain property issue should now find itself so ennobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America?
  • [to the court] This is the most important case ever to come before this court. Because what it in fact concerns is the very nature of man.
  • [to the court] This man is black. We can all see that. But, can we also see as easily, that which is equally true? That he is the only true hero in this room. Now, if he were white, he wouldn't be standing before this court fighting for his life. If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn't be standing, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about him. The great authors of our times would fill books about him. His story would be told and retold, in our classrooms. Our children, because we would make sure of it, would know his name as well as they know Patrick Henry's. Yet, if the South is right, what are we to do with that embarrassing, annoying document, the Declaration of Independence? What of its conceits? "All men created equal," "inalienable rights," "life, liberty," and so on and so forth? What on Earth are we to do with this? I have a modest suggestion. [tears papers in half]
  • [to the court] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington...John Adams. We've long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so, we might acknowledge that our individuality, which we so, so revere, is not entirely our own. Perhaps we've feared appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But, we've come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now, we've been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding...that who we are is who we were. We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war? Then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.
  • [to the court] Well, gentlemen, I must say I differ with the keen minds of the South and with our President, who apparently shares their views, offering that the natural state of mankind is instead - and I know this is a controversial idea - is freedom. Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman or child will go to regain it once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.

Justice Joseph Story

  • In the case of the United States of America versus the Amistad Africans, it is the opinion of this Court that our treaty of 1795 with Spain, on which the prosecution has primarily based its arguments, is inapplicable. While it is clearly stipulated in Article 9 that, and I quote, "seized ships and cargo are to be returned entirely to their proprietary," the end of quote, it has not been shown to the Court's satisfaction that these particular Africans fit that description. We are then left with the alternative: that they are not slaves, and therefore, cannot be considered merchandise, but are rather free individuals with certain legal and moral rights, including the right to engage in insurrection against those who would deny them their freedom. And, therefore, over one dissent, it is the Court's judgment that the defendants are to be released from custody at once, and if they so choose, to be returned to their homes in Africa.


Theodore Joadson: There remains one task undone. One vital task the Founding Fathers left to their sons...
John Quincy Adams: Yes?
Theodore Joadson: ...before their thirteen colonies could precisely be called United States. And that task, Sir, as you well know, is crushing slavery.

John Quincy Adams: What is their story, by the way?
Theodore Joadson: Sir?
John Quincy Adams: What is their story?
Theodore Joadson: Why, they're um...they're from west Africa.
John Quincy Adams: No. What is their story? [Joadson exhales and looks confused] Mr. Joadson, you're from where originally?
Theodore Joadson: Why, Georgia, sir.
John Quincy Adams: Georgia.
Theodore Joadson: Yes, sir.
John Quincy Adams: Does that pretty much sum up what you are? A Georgian? Is that your story?'re an ex-slave who's devoted his life to the abolition of slavery, and overcoming the obstacles and hardships along the way, I should imagine. That's your story, isn't it? [Joadson smiles and nods] [laughs] You and this young so-called lawyer have proven you know what they are. They're Africans. Congratulations. What you don't know, and as far as I can tell haven't bothered in the least to discover, is who they are. Right?

Amistad Slave 1: [in Mende] He reminds me of that Fula of Baoma, you know the one who hires himself to scrape elephant dung from the crop rows.
Amistad Slave 2: [in Mende] A dung-scraper might be just the kind of man we need right now.
Roger Sherman Baldwin: [point to a map] Here, Africa? Is this where you're from? A-fri-ca?

Roger Sherman Baldwin: On the other hand, let's say they aren't slaves. If they aren't slaves, in which case they were illegally acquired, weren't they? Forget mutiny, forget piracy, forget murder and all the rest. Those are subsequent irrelevant occurrences. Ignore everything but the pre-eminent issue at hand. The wrongful transfer of stolen goods. Either way, we win.
Lewis Tappan: Sir, this war must be waged on the battlefield of righteousness.
Roger Sherman Baldwin: The what?

Roger Sherman Baldwin: Cinque describes the cold-blooded murder of a significant portion of the people on board the Tecora. Mr Holabird sees this as a paradox. Do you, sir?
Captain Fitzgerald: Often when slavers are intercepted, or believe they may be, they simply throw all their prisoners over board and thereby rid themselves of the evidence of their crime.
Roger Sherman Baldwin: Drown hundreds of people?
Captain Fitzgerald: Yes.
William S. Holabird: It hardly seems a lucrative business to me, this slave trading. Going to all that trouble, rounding everybody up, only to throw them all overboard.
Captain Fitzgerald: No, it's very lucrative.
Roger Sherman Baldwin: If only we could corroborate Cinque's story somehow with evidence of some kind.
Captain Fitzgerald: The inventory. If you look, there's a notation made on May tenth, correcting the number of slaves on board, reducing their number by fifty.
Roger Sherman Baldwin: What does that mean?
Captain Fitzgerald: Well, if you look at it in conjunction with Cinque's testimony, I would say that it means this: The Tecora crew have greatly underestimated the amount of provisions required for their journey, and solved the problem by throwing fifty people overboard.
William S. Holabird: I am looking at the same inventory, Captain, and I am sorry, I don't see where it says, 'Today we threw fifty slaves overboard', on May tenth or any other day.
Captain Fitzgerald: As, of course, you would not.
William S. Holabird: I do see that the cargo weight changed. They reduced the poundage, I see. But that is all.
Captain Fitzgerald: It's simple, ghastly arithmetic.
William S. Holabird: Well, for you, perhaps. I may need a quill and parchment, and a better imagination.
Captain Fitzgerald: And what poundage do you imagine the entry may refer to, sir? A mast and sails perhaps?

[While in prison awaiting Judge Coglin's ruling, one of the Amistad captives, Yamba, reads an illustrated Bible. Cinque looks over to him, conversing in Mende]
Cinque: You don't have to pretend to be interested in that. Nobody's watching but me.
Yamba: I'm not pretending. I'm beginning to understand it. Their people have suffered more than ours...Their lives were full of suffering. [turns the page, showing an image of the newborn Jesus] Then he was born and everything changed.
Cinque: Who is he?
Yamba: I don't know, but everywhere he goes he is followed by the sun. [turns the page, showing Jesus healing the sick] Here he is healing people with his hands. [another page, Jesus protecting Mary Magdelene] Protecting them... [another page, Jesus with children] Being given children...
Cinque: [sees a picture of Jesus walking on water] What's this?
Yamba: He could also walk across the sea. [as he speaks, Judge Coglin kneels before a communion rail, praying] But then something happened...He was captured, accused of some sort of crime. [turns the page, showing Jesus before Pilate] Here he is with his hands tied.
Cinque: He must have done something.
Yamba: Why? What did we do? Whatever it was, it was serious enough to kill him for it. Do you want to see how they killed him?
[Cinque nods, and Yamba turns the page, showing the Crucifixion]
Cinque: This is just a story, Yamba.
Yamba: But look. That's not the end of it. [shows the disciples taking Jesus' body down from the cross] His people took his body down from this...thing...this... [draws a cross in the air] They took him into a cave. They wrapped him in a cloth, like we do. They thought he was dead, but he appeared before his people again...and spoke to them. [shows the Resurrection] Then, finally, he rose into the sky. [turns to an image of Jesus ascending to Heaven, then to another to Heaven's light breaking through the clouds] This is where the soul goes when you die here. This is where we're going when they kill us. It doesn't look so bad.

Calderon: What's most bewildering to Her this arrogant independence of the American courts. After all, if you cannot rule the courts, you cannot rule.
Martin Van Buren: Señor Calderon, as any true American will tell you, it's the independence of our courts that keeps us free.

John Quincy Adams: Now, you understand you're going to the Supreme Court. Do you know why?
Ens. Covey: [translating for Cinque] It is the place where they finally kill us.

Ens. Covey: [translating for Cinque after he has been set free] What did you say to them?
John Quincy Adams: Huh?
Ens. Covey: [translates again] What words did you use to persuade them?
John Quincy Adams: [looks at Cinque] Yours.


  • Freedom is not given. It is our right at birth. But there are some moments when it must be taken.
  • A true story.


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