Last night we watched the 1997 movie Amistad. I was horrified anew at how awful slavery was back in the early 1800s. Steve Spielberg knows just how to capture a moment in time and make it feel as if you were actually there. I’m certain the terror exists in the minds of most all who have watched Amistad. Some scenes were seared into our collective memory whether we liked it or not. Kind of like the murder shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” That kind of wretched sickness that graphically shows the depravity of man.
What I think is the best part of the film comes at the very end (if you can endure the torture and blood) which features a speech by the former President John Quincy Adams. His character is expertly played by Anthony Hopkins. Adams does battle with words in the courtroom in front of the U.S. Supreme Court justices. Twenty years later this would be played out in the blood bath on the battle fields of the American Civil War.
A powerful moment in the movie is when the leader of the captured slaves (Cinque) from the ship named Amistad stands up in the middle of a very tense court scene. He pleads with his hands in shackles to the judge, attorneys and other spectators of the case, “Give us, us free.” The Africans off the Amistad ship had been incarcerated for two years while this legal battle over property rights was going on. Cinque had picked up enough English to express his desires by essentially saying “Give us our freedom.”
I think that is what trafficked victims from all over the world want, their freedom. But they are immobilized by fear and they have no advocates to help them through the labyrinth of courtroom procedures if they ever escape and bring their case to justice. Perhaps it would take legal proceedings like what happened to Amistad to get the world’s attention that we have a modern day problem of slavery still.
Where are the erudite, sage statesmen today who are willing to use all their knowledge and faculties to help those less fortunate who need someone to stand in the gap for them? I was encouraged to see the Holy Bible took a prominent place in this Speilberg film that showed the suffering of the Jewish people under the slave drivers in Egypt. Then the story continued with how Jesus took a cruel death even though he didn’t deserve it because he healed, protected people, enjoyed children, walked on water. He was killed on a cross but then he was resurrected and went up to heaven. One of the Africans on trial pieced together the Bible stories to take comfort and had hope for what they were going through. They were eventually returned home to their native land in Africa. I wonder who their descendants are and how they are doing now that they have “freedom.”
I also wonder who will step up to the plate and be an advocate for present day people who are trapped in slavery? Here is how Barrister Adams appealed to the Supreme Court justices, his speech in its entirety.
John Quincy Adams: “Your Honors, I derive much consolation from the fact that my colleague, Mr. Baldwin, here, has argued the case in so able and so complete a manner as to leave me scarcely anything to say.
However, why are we here? How is it that a simple, plain property issue should now find itself so ennobled as to be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States of America? I mean, do we fear the lower courts, which found for us easily, somehow missed the truth? Is that it? Or is it, rather, our great and consuming fear of civil war that has allowed us to heap symbolism upon a simple case that never asked for it and now would have us disregard truth, even as it stands before us, tall and proud as a mountain? The truth, in truth, has been driven from this case like a slave, flogged from court to court, wretched and destitute. And not by any great legal acumen on the part of the opposition, I might add, but through the long, powerful arm of the Executive Office.
Yea, this is no mere property case, gentlemen. I put it to you thus: This is the most important case ever to come before this court. Because what it, in fact, concerns is the very nature of man.
These are transcriptions of letters written between our Secretary of State, John Forsyth, and the Queen of Spain, Isabella the Second. Now, I ask that you accept their perusal as part of your deliberations.
I would not touch on them now except to notice a curious phrase which is much repeated. The queen again and again refers to our incompetent courts. Now what, I wonder, would be more to her liking? Huh? A court that finds [judgment] against the Africans? Well, I think not. And here is the fine point of it: What her majesty wants is a court that behaves just like her courts, the courts this eleven year-old child plays with in her magical kingdom called Spain, a court that will do what it is told, a court that can be toyed with like a doll, a court — as it happens — of which our own President, Martin Van Buren, would be most proud.
This is a publication of the Office of the President. It’s called the Executive Review, and I’m sure you all read it. At least I’m sure the President hopes you all read it. This is a recent issue, and there’s an article in here written by a “keen mind of the South,” who is my former Vice President, John Calhoun, perhaps — Could it be? — who asserts that:
“There has never existed a civilized society in which one segment did not thrive upon the labor of another. As far back as one chooses to look — to ancient times, to biblical times — history bears this out. In Eden, where only two were created, even there one was pronounced subordinate to the other. Slavery has always been with us and is neither sinful nor immoral. Rather, as war and antagonism are the natural states of man, so, too, slavery, as natural as it is inevitable.”
Now, gentlemen, I must say I differ with the keen minds of the South, and with our president, who apparently shares their views, offering that the natural state of mankind is instead — and I know this is a controversial idea — is freedom. Is freedom. And the proof is the length to which a man, woman, or child will go to regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains, He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.
Cinque, would you stand up, if you would, so everyone can see you. This man is black. We can all see that. But can we also see as easily that which is equally true — that he is the only true hero in this room.
Now, if he were white, he wouldn’t be standing before this court fighting for his life. If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn’t be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about him. The great authors of our times would fill books about him. His story would be told and retold in our classrooms. Our children, because we would make sure of it, would know his name as well as they know Patrick Henry’s.
Yet, if the South is right, what are we to do with that embarrassing, annoying document, “The Declaration of Independence?” What of its conceits? “All men…created equal,” “inalienable rights,” “life,” “liberty,” and so on and so forth? What on earth are we to do with this?
I have a modest suggestion. [tears up a facsimile of the Declaration]
The other night I was talking with my friend, Cinque. He was over at my place, and we were out in the greenhouse together. And he was explaining to me how when a member of the Mende — that’s his people — how when a member of the Mende encounters a situation where there appears no hope at all, he invokes his ancestors. It’s a tradition. See, the Mende believe that if one can summon the spirits of one’s ancestors, then they have never left, and the wisdom and strength they fathered and inspired will come to his aid.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams: We’ve long resisted asking you for guidance. Perhaps we have feared in doing so we might acknowledge that our individuality which we so, so revere is not entirely our own. Perhaps we’ve feared an appeal to you might be taken for weakness. But, we’ve come to understand, finally, that this is not so. We understand now, we’ve been made to understand, and to embrace the understanding that who we are is who we were.
We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, our-selves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war, then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.
That’s all I have to say.”