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AMISTAD

FRIENDSHIP IN IRONS & IRONY
In the summer of 1839, on a stormy night off the coast of Cuba, 53 Africans held captive in the cramped cargo holds of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, broke free of their shackles. It was the beginning of a crucial episode in American history – yet one which few Americans ever learnt about. Steven Spielberg’s film has changed that; but it also issues a challenge to Australians to discover more of their own history, reports ANDREW L. URBAN, as he pores over the filmmakers’ notes.

As producer Debbie Allen notes, "The name La Amistad means friendship, which is such an ironic name for a ship with a cargo of people who have been stolen from their homes. But the name is also significant because of the abolitionists and the missionaries and the other American people who worked so hard to help the Amistad Africans gain their freedom. So friendship has an interesting place throughout this movie."

A FORGOTTEN PAST
Steven Spielberg’s film began its journey to the screen over 13 years ago. In 1984, producer Debbie Allen came across two volumes of essays and articles, titled Amistad I and II, written by African-American writers, historians and philosophers. She recalls, "I didn't understand the significance of the name until I opened to the preface. On one page it told the whole story."

She couldn't imagine why she had never even heard of the landmark incident, or of the courage and determination of the leader of the rebellion, Sengbe Pieh, whom the Spaniards called "Cinque." "I was filled with many different emotions. I felt empowered and excited that this had actually happened, yet I also felt robbed and cheated that I had never been taught about this in school. I knew it was a true story-a pivotal moment in time-that should be told to the world."

(How many such great stories, important to Australia’s sense of self and to its understanding of its own history, could our own filmmakers find?)

Allen set out on a personal quest to bring the story of the Amistad to the big screen. In 1984, she optioned the rights to Black Mutiny, an historical account of the incident written by William Owen. For more than a decade, she researched and developed the project, but was met with little interest from the filmmaking community. Many producers – from Australian to Zanzibar - will recognise a film producer’s stock in trade - passion - in Allen’s story.

"What kept me going was belief," Allen attests. "I believed in the power and the truth of this story. I believed that the enormous tapestry upon which it occurred related to all our ancestors-the Africans, the abolitionists, the pro-slavers, the Spanish, the Cubans, the British . . . It tells us all a lot about our history."

Nearly a decade passed, and while Allen found success with other projects, "Amistad" seemed stonewalled. After seeing Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," however, her hopes were renewed. "I realized that here was a filmmaker who could understand and embrace this project and help me get it done."

"I was struck by some of the images of the Africans that were etched by a court artist," - Spielberg

She met first with co-heads of DreamWorks Pictures Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, who wasted no time in setting up a meeting for her with Spielberg. "Steven wanted to know everything about the story. He was just insatiable," Allen relates. "We had a fantastic, emotional conversation that went on for about an hour and a half, and I knew we were going to make this movie. After all those years, it happened so quickly."

Spielberg acknowledges that he had only a passing knowledge of the Amistad prior to his meeting with Allen. However, as he notes, "I was inspired by her passion for the story. She had a remarkable ability to make me see it through her eyes."

Sifting through the visual material Allen had collected through the years, Spielberg felt he could also see it through the eyes of those who had lived the story. "I was struck by some of the images of the Africans that were etched by a court artist," he asserts. "You never saw their faces, just their silhouetted profiles. Yet I could look at those profiles and feel who these people were - just based on the side angles of each of the faces."

"The most interesting thing to remember about Cinque is that he was not a slave and had never been a slave." David Franzoni, scriptwriter

Not long after Spielberg signed on, Colin Wilson came aboard as a producer. "Amistad" now had a director and producers, but no script. To shape the multi-faceted story into a dramatic screenplay, Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald turned to screenwriter David Franzoni, who had previously penned the acclaimed HBO telefilm "Citizen Cohn."

From his first meeting with the filmmakers, Franzoni remembers "the chemistry was perfect. We agreed it was vital to establish the drama from the perspective of the Africans, specifically from the point of view of their leader, Sengbe, named Cinque by the Spanish," Franzoni continues. "The most interesting thing to remember about Cinque is that he was not a slave and had never been a slave. He was a free man who suddenly found himself in chains. But he doesn't bend, he doesn't equivocateÉand because he has that kind of power, that absolutely unswerving drive, he becomes-even while in prison-the freest man on earth."

CASTING FOR HISTORY
When casting on Amistad began, the first person to whom Steven Spielberg showed the script was three-time Academy Award-nominated actor Morgan Freeman. "Morgan was on my wish list of actors I'd always wanted to work with, and he was the first actor I went to," Spielberg says.

"Really good scripts that excite you on the first reading are hard to come by," Freeman remarks. "This is a story that is so important to the American fabric, and most people have never heard of it. When you have stories of this nature-which both entertain and instruct-it becomes both a gift and an obligation to take part in telling it."

Freeman stars as the abolitionist Theodore Joadson who, along with fellow abolitionist Lewis Tappan (played by Stellan Skarsgård), is among the first to come to the aid of the Amistad Africans. "When the story of the Amistad breaks, they jump right in the middle of it. The newspapers call the incident a 'massacre at sea,' but Joadson and Tappan call the Africans 'freedom fighters.'"

"Baldwin's nickname in the story is 'Dung Scraper.' He's a property lawyer, but he knows this case." - McConaughey

Actually, Joadson is one of the few principal characters in the film who is fictionalized. Allen explains, "Joadson is the embodiment of the African-American abolitionist movement of the day. He's a former slave who has become educated and is struggling to abolish slavery. Morgan's character allows us to see how black people were at the core of those movements. His character is a composite of such historic figures as James Forten, David Walker, James Pennington and Henry Highland Garnet."

Joadson and Tappan try to enlist a good attorney to defend the Africans. But, as Skarsgård notes, "we end up at the bottom of the list with a shady lawyer named Baldwin."

"This was not a human rights issue; this was a property issue." Spielberg

Cast as lawyer Roger Baldwin, Matthew McConaughey reveals, "Baldwin's nickname in the story is 'Dung Scraper.' He's a property lawyer, but he knows this case."

Spielberg elaborates, "This case had great relevance to Baldwin because the Africans were considered property. He was trying desperately, however, to prove the Africans were not, in fact, legally slaves-born on a plantation to parents who were slaves-because they were from Africa and were illegally kidnapped from their homes. This was not a human rights issue; this was a property issue."

Through his dealings with the Africans, and particularly with Cinque, McConaughey's character does undergo a transformation. "In the beginning, Baldwin looks at the Africans as property and is not sensitive to the 'cause' whatsoever," McConaughey observes. "That's where his journey comes in. Throughout the story, he becomes more humane as he begins to understand the importance of what he's doing. He no longer sees it as a property case; he sees the humanity of the issue."

Despite Baldwin's valiant efforts, it appeared that justice would not prevail. Fearing the wrath of the South, incumbent President Martin Van Buren overturned the lower court's decision, which was in favor of the Africans. The ensuing case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, earning the moniker "The Trial of the Presidents." Spielberg clarifies, "President Martin Van Buren, who was up for reelection, was pulling the strings behind the scenes. At the same time, the attorney working on behalf of the Africans in the Supreme Court case was former President John Quincy Adams, the son of one of our nation's founding fathers, John Adams."

In an interesting piece of casting, both American Presidents in Amistad are portrayed by distinguished British actors: Academy Award nominee Nigel Hawthorne plays Martin Van Buren, while Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins is John Quincy Adams.

"Anthony brought the same august tenor to the speech that Adams must have had," - Spielberg

"It was a tremendous honor to be asked to play this part; I think it is one of the greatest parts I've ever played," Hopkins avows. "Adams was a one-term President. He was an astute puritan and totally incorruptible, which didn't make him a very popular politician. Neither an abolitionist, nor pro-slavery, he initially wanted nothing to do with the Amistad case. But gradually, he was compelled to go and fight for these people's lives. He was a very moral man."

Adams had earned the name "Old Man Eloquent" for his great oratory skills, which are demonstrated in the film by his final impassioned argument before the Supreme Court. Franzoni comments, "John Quincy Adams watched his father help create this nation, and he fought to his last days to fulfill this country's promise of universal freedom. He was 74 when he made the speech in the Supreme Court. It's as if he had been waiting for Cinque all those years."

"Anthony brought the same august tenor to the speech that Adams must have had," Spielberg adds. "He put in the kind of performance that, for me-as the director-just listening to it made me feel like I was actually there . . . back in time."

Despite assembling an outstanding international cast, the filmmakers knew that it was integral to the success of the film to find the right actor to portray Cinque, the 25-year-old African rice farmer who led his countrymen to rebel against their captors.

Spielberg recalls, "I was not prepared to make the movie without a Cinque who would be utterly believable. We were very fortunate that in the middle of the casting process, we came across Djimon Hounsou. Without that piece of casting, I couldn't have gone forward with the production at the time."

A native of West Africa, Hounsou's only previous film acting experience had been in small roles. Nevertheless, director Vickie Thomas was so impressed with his first reading that she immediately forwarded his videotaped audition to Spielberg.

"I had to make it believable for myself" - Hounsou

"His videotape was so overwhelming that I brought him in that afternoon," the director states. "He was Cinque. He was courageous, he was sympathetic, he was angry, he had dignity, so many things combined. Djimon has an inner peace and an outer strength that made him perfect for the role." Debbie Allen echoes Spielberg's reaction. "You don't want a hero who is just a hero. Djimon had this wonderful quality of power, yet vulnerability, that was so right for this character."

Reflecting on his role, Hounsou notes, "Cinque refuses to be taken as a slave. He will go to any length to free himself so he can get back to his country - to his wife and children. There is no experience in my life that I could draw on to play this part. I had never been chained or put in prison and treated like an animal. I had to make it believable for myself that I was actually being treated like that, so people could look at me and understand and feel the pain that Cinque must have endured."

JUDGE FOR JUDGE
In a casting coup, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun makes a cameo appearance in the role of Joseph Story, the Supreme Court Justice who delivered the court's final groundbreaking decision. Remarkably, while on the bench, Justice Blackmun occupied the seat that had been Justice Story's in the 19th century.

Spielberg was honored to have the Justice's participation in the film. "Justice Story had written a brilliant decision, and we extracted a piece of it for the scene. Justice Blackmun delivered it just as he would in the Supreme Court today and, I imagine, just how the actual Justice Story rendered the decision in 1841."

LA AMISTAD SAILS AGAIN
To achieve the scenes aboard the Amistad, the production used two different historic schooners: Maryland's state ship, The Pride of Baltimore II, on the East Coast; and California's state ship, The Californian, off the coast of Los Angeles. Both ships were painted and dressed to resemble the Amistad in various states of disrepair.

Some of the film's most difficult scenes were accomplished during a week of filming at sea. Under the guidance of marine coordinator Harry Julian, the production company relocated to a "floating" city just over a mile off the coast of San Pedro. Julian describes the flotilla: "We had a 200' by 60' barge that could accommodate 40-ton rigs, 50-ton cranes, and all the other facilities. There were passenger boats to move people back and forth to shore, camera boats, chase boats to move people from ship to ship, and tug boats to tow the barge itself."

"Combined with the massive wave-generating dump tanks, and rain and lightning effects, it was a convincing recreation"

For five rigorous days of filming, the cast and crew braved swells that never seemed to end, but even back on solid ground they had more swaying to endure. The actual mutiny scenes were filmed on a ship deck built on a Van Nuys soundstage. The special effects team constructed the set of the ship on a gimble, a series of hydraulically-powered lifts that simulated the appropriate rocking motion. Combined with the massive wave-generating dump tanks, and rain and lightning effects, it was a convincing recreation of the storm-swept night when Cinque and his countrymen broke free of their chains and took back their freedom.

February, 1998

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See REVIEWS

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"The name La Amistad means friendship, which is such an ironic name for a ship with a cargo of people who have been stolen from their homes," Debbie Allen, producer

________________

"So friendship has an interesting place throughout this movie."

________________


"Morgan was on my wish list of actors I'd always wanted to work with, and he was the first actor I went to," Spielberg on Freeman

________________

"When you have stories of this nature-which both entertain and instruct-it becomes both a gift and an obligation to take part in telling it." Morgan Freeman

________________


"It was a tremendous honor to be asked to play this part; I think it is one of the greatest parts I've ever played," Anthony Hopkins

________________

"He put in the kind of performance that, for me-as the director-just listening to it made me feel like I was actually there . . . back in time." Spielberg on Hopkins

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"Without that piece of casting, I couldn't have gone forward with the production at the time." Spielberg on casting Hounsou

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"I believed in the power and the truth of this story." Debbie Allen, producer

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"We had a fantastic, emotional conversation ... and I knew we were going to make this movie." Allen on meeting Spielberg

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"She had a remarkable ability to make me see it through her eyes." Spielberg on Allen

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