Oscar time is a'coming, and with it another chance to consider the relationship between Steven Spielberg's world and our own. Once again the poet laureate of the Phoenix suburbs has swung for the fences with a big humanitarian historical epic that leaves no emotional button unpushed.
Last time out, with Schindler's List, Spielberg took on the emblematic evil of the 20th century—the scientifically efficient, industrialized, assembly-line slaughter of the Jews by the Nazis. Now, with Amistad, he's stepped back to consider the racist crime of the 19th century—the African slave trade.
In both cases Spielberg, the perpetual optimist, finds in history's field of blood and bones the one small story where the good guys won. This is important because today's mass movie audience absolutely requires a happy ending. Life may be ambiguous, or even tragic, but if you film it that way no one will see it. Tragedy is box office death. But the stories of Schindler—the savior of Jews who got away—and the Amistad Africans—who fought the power and won in court—allow the dreamworker to show the full horror of history and still deliver that third act uplift.
Of course, the mandatory happy ending comes naturally for Spielberg. In fact he was associated with many of the action-bloated blockbusters of the late '70s and early '80s that so dumbed down (or numbed out) the movie audience (think Jaws, think Indiana Jones). By making such unprecedented buckets of money, those movies effectively killed off a Golden Age of cinematic experiment (ruled by the likes of Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola) and brought back the one-dimensional celluloid hero.
It wasn't long before Spielberg, like a second-term president, started thinking about his place in history. No artist wants to be remembered solely as the director of mechanical sharks and spacemen. Hence he offered The Color Purple, a 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. With that project Spielberg stepped, with blissful ignorance, into a minefield of family business between black women and men. Burned by his pass at social significance, Spielberg retreated for several years into the familiar world of childhood and its discontents (anyone remember Hook?).
Schindler's List was successful because Spielberg brought the passion of his own Jewishness to the table, and because he was smart enough to force himself out of his usual facile cinematic language. Shooting in black and white, he couldn't go for the glow that suffused The Color Purple and made it so disconcertingly pretty. Instead, he had to go into the grain of reality and confront suffering and truth.
WITH THAT SUCCESS under his belt, Spielberg was ready to take on this continent's horror story. This time he minded his political manners by working with a black co-producer (Debbie Allen) and an all-star cast of African-American history consultants.
A well-publicized last-minute glitch developed when writer Barbara Chase-Riboud sued Spielberg and company for plagiarizing her 1989 novel, Echo of Lions. In her reimagining of the Amistad events, Chase-Riboud invented a well-off and well-educated African-American abolitionist, much like the one played by Morgan Freeman in the film.
And, to thicken the plot a little more, it turned out that Spielberg's screenwriter, Daniel Franzoni, had worked on a failed adaptation of Echo of Lions in 1993. These coincidences certainly leave a bad smell, and Ms. Chase-Riboud seems entitled to some of Spielberg's bajillion dollars.
But it is also true that the invention of that character would probably occur to any knowledgeable writer. Frederick Douglass is clearly the model for the black abolitionist, and Douglass should have been at the Amistad trial. It is dramatically inevitable. But in 1839 Douglass had himself just escaped from a Maryland plantation. He was unavailable so Chase-Riboud, and Franzoni, had to invent him.
In the end Spielberg and his collaborators (acknowledged and otherwise) got the story right and they got it on the screen. Only an action director of Spielberg's fluency and grace could have created the visual poetry of Amistad's opening sequence of the shipboard revolt. And only a big-budget epic could do justice to the horror of the Middle Passage from Sierra Leone to Havana. Amistad deserves praise if only because it vividly documents that horror for the ages.
That's the power of Spielberg's box office history and insider status. If Amistad had been just Debbie Allen's or Morgan Freeman's project, it would have been made on a shoestring for HBO and forgotten by all but ardent cinema buffs. The story of the Amistad rebellion deserves the near-universal attention a Spielbergian blockbuster can bring. It's a monument to the 44 Amistad warriors, and to the millions of captured Africans who fought for freedom by every available means.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.