Sometimes a film’s neat ending can distort the realities of the historical events it portrays. For students in WGS/CINE 412L: Gender, Human Rights, and Global Cinema, this was a critical concern Professor Elora Halim Chowdhury asked them to consider. Funded by a grant provided by the Mellon Foundation, the class asks questions of international human rights discourse, colonization and postcolonial perspectives, and gender inequality through the medium of global cinema. For their final discussion of the semester, they focused their gaze on a local film made in the United States, Amistad (1997) , which recounts the story of the 1839 slave revolt by Mende captives on the slave ship, La Amistad. The film was a Hollywood hit directed by Steven Spielberg and starring prominent filmstars Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew McConaughey. Professor Chowdhury asked the class to think about if the film perpetuates a white savior narrative.
She said that it was “really telling in the way the film racializes a particular narrative between the white savior and black enslaved characters,” pointing for example to the ending where former U.S. president John Quincy Adams, played by Hopkins, stands as the film’s hero with a powerful speech, standing against a gallery of busts of the so-called founding fathers, in declaration that “the natural state of mankind is freedom.” While this event is historically accurate, it obscures the paradox of the declaration of independence, imagined and penned by white propertied men and its simultaneous denial of freedom to slaves. The emotional emphasis on Quincy’s oration in the film shifts the focus away from the African men who he claims to represent and toward the benevolent white men who are portrayed as their saviors. “The speech doesn’t help anyone,” student Kelly Schomburg cotinued, “It feels like it just alleviates white guilt.”
Students were also concerned about how other elements of the film misrepresented history and perpetuated stereotypes about people of color. Student Thasin Ahmed noted the ways that the opening scene of the slave revolt “made it seem like the colored people were very barbaric,” and suggested that though the intent of this portrayal was to emphasize the desperation of the captives, particularly through emphasizing the physicality of black men, it could nevertheless be misconstrued by audiences. Student Rachel O’Sullivan said that the movie “exaggerated things,” and another student, Haley Lavris, confirmed this observation by noting that the actual historical uprising on the Amistad did not have the same impact on the Civil War that Adams’ speech implied. The class came to realize how the cinematic goal of developing a linear, progress narrative line and a neat ending resulted in a distorted representation of slavery and slave revolts in 19th century America and their impacts.
The class is as interested in intersectional issues of human rights and gender as they are with the technical analysis of film-making. In this discussion, students drew attention to the importance of the visuals and sounds of the courtroom scene, where the African men are placed in the back of the room or the balcony due to their lesser social standing. Student Isaac West noted that the light is “symbolic,” as he put it, noting that there is an “ambience of holiness” in the courtroom, as a halo surrounds Djimon Hounsou’s Cinque, which is further enhanced by the choral music of the score. Student Sara Collins thought that this scene "refocuses the film” away from its muddled portrayal of history and back toward its symbolic significance. “This is about freedom and the agency for someone to have their freedom,” she said.
Kelly Schomburg drew a connection between the misrepresentation of historical events in the film to current conversations about “rewriting” history. She connected the discussion to present-day debates about the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials in the name of preserving history. “We’re not rewriting history, we’re reckoning with history,” she said. Similarly, when students criticize the portrayal of race in this film, they are not rewriting history but reckoning with its messy narrative.
Professor Chowdhury left students with a final question to consider: “Why engage in such cinematic licenses to make a movie palatable, and for whom?” The goal of this exercise in filmography sought to help students develop their critical and global eye. Reckoning with this history through a medium that has a broad public audience is essential to a nuanced understanding of the status of human rights in our present moment.