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Amistad Hits The Big Screen

January 1, 1998

Nick Marinello

When Steven Spielberg directs a film, it seems, the world watches. At least, that is what Clifton Johnson is counting on. With the opening of Spielberg's new movie, Amistad, last month, Johnson, the founding and now emeritus director of the Amistad Research Center, is anticipating a ground swell of interest for a historical event that has captivated him for most of his life.

The Amistad center, which has been located on Tulane's campus since 1987, appointed a new executive director, Donald DeVore, in June 1996. "As a historian I have been dedicated to trying to get the story of the Amistad incident known for 40 years," says Johnson. "Spielberg will do it in a much, much shorter time." The story is as compelling as any to reach the big screen.

In 1839, the merchant ship La Amistad was contracted to transport 53 Africans to plantations located along the Cuban coast. The Africans revolted, however, killing the captain and most members of the crew before seizing control of the ship. Their attempt to return home to West Africa by sailing toward the rising sun was thwarted by the remaining crew members, who reversed the ship's direction at night.

Two months of such zigzagging across the Atlantic ended when the ship was finally captured off the coast of Connecticut. The Africans were jailed and charged with piracy and murder but were ultimately freed after a coalition of abolitionists took up their cause and pursued it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

"Many have called it the first civil rights case," says Johnson. "The Supreme Court pointed out the Africans had a natural, inalienable right to freedom. Unfortunately, the decision was not taken as tradition."

Johnson, who founded the Amistad Research Center at Fisk University in 1966 and moved it to New Orleans three years later, was contacted by the film's producer Debbie Allen (Fame, A Different World) in 1994 to act as a consultant on the project. Much of his input was used to fine-tune the historical details of the story.

"They sent me a long list of questions that did not always specifically deal with the incident," says Johnson, who was able to help set designers recreate 19th-century New Haven by identifying every building on the Yale campus at that time. "I also identified buildings in Havana, supplied them with information on the slave trade and sent them replicas of ships that would have been used in that time," says Johnson.

The filmmakers weren't always completely faithful to history, however, says Johnson, who believes that too much emphasis has been placed in the film on the role of John Quincy Adams (played by Anthony Hopkins) in the defense of the slaves before the Supreme Court.

While it is true that the aging Adams was an abolitionist and did appear before the court, Johnson suggests that his role was really that of "window dressing," and that the true legal hero in the case was Roger Sherman Baldwin (played by Matthew McConaughey), a distinguished, if much less famous, New Haven attorney.

"They felt that they should take a certain creative license, and I maintained that the story is so dramatic that that wasn't necessary."

Johnson also objects to the film's portrayal of Lewis Tappan, an abolitionist who, according to Johnson, was the driving force behind the coalition to free the slaves. In the film, however, Tappan is portrayed as a minor character. It's a choice by the filmmakers, says Johnson, that does a disservice to both Tappan and the historical account.

Despite those reservations, Johnson, who spent time on the film's Los Angeles set and was privy to daily screenings of the work in progress, says, "It is going to be a very powerful film. I think it succeeds in keeping the main issue, which is freedom for the Africans, in the forefront. The Africans are the center of the story."

Johnson is also encouraged that two books, several magazine articles and three television documentaries have been produced within the last year, presumably on the momentum that a Spielberg production can give to a subject.

"My phone is ringing off the hook," says Johnson, who was a commentator on an Arts and Entertainment Network documentary that aired in November. "It is just getting the story out," he says. "That is what is important. The significance of the Amistad incident is that it is an illustration of man's struggle for freedom. It is part of American history."

Area filmgoers were given the chance to view Amistad before the rest of the country during a free preview screening sponsored by the The Amistad Research Center on Dec. 5. The screening, which was held in the Royal Palace Theater, was attended by producer Allen and Djimon Honsou, who portrays Cinque, the rebellion's leader.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu