Amistad is about a mutiny in 1839 aboard a slave ship, La Amistad, which eventually comes to port in New England. The West Africans who have commandeered the ship are taken into custody and the plot revolves around who 'owns' them or if, indeed, they should be freed. This sets up the main event of the film, a courtroom drama about rights and origins, with the required flashbacks to the voyage and the gruesome conditions aboard the ship. The problem with this approach is that we learn less about the real conditions of slavery and instead focus on the more sanitized conditions surrounding the courtroom.
In addition, we get a film which is largely about the efforts of the whites battling the case and much less about the struggles of the Africans themselves. There are too many strands in the film which lead to no-where. At one point Cinque makes an interesting point of international law that might help the case. While the legal minds are inspired by his insight and initiative, the idea is quickly dismissed as unworkable and he plays almost no role in designing the case which might lead to his freedom. The events on the slave ship are even more scattered. Cinque is involved in a brief eye-contact relationship with a young woman but there is no development to give it emotional power.
The women's ensuing death is as shocking as it is unexpected and while it works as a good visual, her undeveloped role as a real person results in the loss of any deeper meaning. Furthermore, the Amistad case is portrayed as a spark that helped ignite the Civil War, but the movie does not go into greater detail. It simply flashes ahead and shows that the Civil War had begun. Also, the fact that few strong personal bonds develop between the principal characters to give the story the emotional force that it needs hurts the dramatic level of the film.
There is an obvious connection between the Africans' leader, Cinque, and the young lawyer working for his release. However, the strength of this budding relationship is unconvincing. Moreover, it is seriously disrupted when control of the defense team is taken over by the aging ex-president, John Quincy Adams. Furthermore, the movie lacked depth in the Supreme Courtroom.
In Washington, only one side of the case is presented: that of the Amistad captives. This lack of information from the defense gives no context as to why the Supreme Court sided with the Amistad captives. The court also says only a couple of sentences during the course of the trial. There are also several important factual misrepresentations: It would complicate the film's storyline too much to explain that slavery still existed in the American north after the American Revolution, and so this fact is simply omitted from the film. The Amistad was brought into port in August, hardly the time for snow to be blowing, as it does in the film. The first hearing took place aboard ship, where district court judge Judson bound over the Amistad captives for trial, and placed them in the New Haven jail.
The next hearing took place before two in a United States Circuit Court; in that trial the judge denied a motion to grant a writ of habeas corpus, and directed the lower district court resolve the issue. These first two hearings were omitted from the film, which proceeded directly to the district court trial. While Amistad is an interesting 'historical film,' there are undeniable flaws within it. A little more research and accuracy could have heightened the films historical appeal. Also, there are too many loose ends within the story.
Speilberg leaves stories untold and contexts incomplete. Overall, Amistad, while entertaining, was an inaccurate 'historical film' and cannot be looked on as historical in many aspects.