The verdict: Amistad is even worse than I feared. I could write for weeks about how insulting it is to its audience’s intelligence and good taste, but instead I’ll just focus on one small speech by a one-scene character, real-life Senator John C. Calhoun, who appears briefly at a dinner party to offer an ominous threat to the president about the case:
- They ignore the fact that slavery is so interwoven into the fabric of this society, that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. It's immoral. That's all they know. Therefore, so are we. Immoral and inferior . . . we're not as wealthy as our Northern neighbors -- we're still struggling. Take away our life's blood now -- well, we all know what happens then, North and South. They become the master, and we the slaves. But not without a fight. What president wants to be in office when it comes crashing down around him? The real determination our courts and our president must make is not whether this ragtag group of Africans raised swords against their enemy, but rather, must we?
As many still do today, Calhoun thought it to be obvious that the North was inherently immoral, and the South was the nation’s beacon of morality. He believed that the South defended slavery so zealously not because they depended on their slaves (he thought these were “men of the soil” who could just as easily work their own land) but because they were the last defenders of a virtuous ideal of land stewardship and its attendant “positive good”*: servant stewardship.
In the North, by contrast, Calhoun would argue, they imported immigrants for temporary factory work, recklessly gave them citizenship, then cast them aside when they weren’t needed, creating a shiftless-yet-enfranchised rabble who threatened to overrun the country and turn it from a genteel agrarian republic into a brutal mob-ocracy. But even if this mob-ocracy eventually necessitated secession, that still wouldn’t result in violence. Instead, the North, left to stew in its own filth, would realize its mistake and come crawling back to the South on any terms.
Calhoun believed that, just as blacks weren’t fit to rule themselves, the North wasn’t fit to rule itself, so the South had the solemn responsibility of taking up both duties. All three branches of government must be continually gamed, whether through democratic or undemocratic means, to ensure continuous Southern domination, lest Northern incompetence and short-sidedness be allowed to wreck the country.
Now don’t get me wrong—Calhoun was totally delusional, but to put our modern point-of-view into his mouth then is bad writing in so many ways...
- It shows that a lazy writer hasn’t done his research.
- By failing to show that abolitionism seemed like a radical, absurd, and suicidal proposition to North and South alike, Spielberg robs his abolitionist heroes of their heroism. In this version, their cause seems like such an obvious no-brainer.
- It’s dramatically inert because everybody knows exactly what they’re getting into. Every discussion is about “the issue of slavery,” rather than all of the smaller things it seemed to be about at the time. If Spielberg had pitted his heroes against Calhoun’s actual, seductive, topsy-turvy logic, he might have created something meaningful. Storytelling requires irony, and this was indeed a very ironic case, but Spielberg has ironed all the irony out of it.
Great period-pieces wrench us out of our modern perspective. They don’t allow us to frame issues in familiar ways. In the “Mad Men” pilot, when Lucky Strike screams bloody murder to Don Draper about a cancer exposé in “Reader’s Digest”, Don doesn’t launch into a public health debate, as we would today. Instead, he quickly mollifies his clients by saying “Well, ladies love their magazines.”
See it how they would see it, not how you see it. “Reader’s Digest” is a women’s magazine so who cares? Knock your audience out of their comfortable modern perch and plunge them down into the muck of the past. Believe it or not, they’ll actually enjoy shoveling their way out.
*Calhoun’s most famous speech, given two years before the Amistad case: “I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good... I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse...”