SAILING INTO HISTORY
By Bennie M. Currie
Sometimes a child's curiosity can give a parent fits. But when Debbie Allen's 10 year-old son asked her a question about his slave ancestors, she relished the chance to set her young son straight and dispel a misconception shared by scores of Americans. "Mama, why didn't they fight back?" asked Norman Nixon, Jr. Allen told her son that no African went willingly into slavery or captivity. In fact, many Africans fought to their deaths to maintain their freedom, and many of those freedom fighters won.
Fortunately for the rest of us, Allen is a mother who also happens to be a force in Hollywood, and she can now dispel the myth for moviegoers. The director-actor-choreo-grapher-dancer (Fame, A Different World, The Academy Awards) is the producer of Amistad, a feature film depicting the story of 53 West Africans and their courageous rejection of slavery. Scheduled for release December 12, the film is a product of DreamWorks Pictures in association with HBO Pictures. It tells the story of the Mende people who were kidnapped in 1839 from an area now known as Sierra Leone and sold to Spanish slave traders. Amistad, which means friendship in Spanish, is also the name of the slave ship that transported the 49 men and four children.
Led by 25-year-old Sengbe Pieh (called Cinque by the Spaniards), the desperate captives waged a bloody revolt three days into a voyage off the coast of Cuba, took control of the Amistad and began a circuitous journey back to their homeland. The Africans ordered their former captors to sail back to Africa, but the Spaniards secretly set the ship off-course at night and after two months, piloted the vessel to Long Island Sound, where the Africans were captured by a U.S. naval crew.
Facing charges of murder and piracy, Sengbe and his comrades were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut and tried for their crimes. Their plight stimulated an abolitionist movement in New Haven and led to the formulation of the Amistad Committee, which provided the defendants with housing, tutelage in English, and most important, legal assistance.
After nearly two years, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story delivered a landmark ruling, declaring the 35 Amistad Survivors free men. But before they could secure that victory, the African's legal team had to head off political meddling, mostly that of President Martin Van Buren, who feared that a court victory for the Africans would cost him the 1840 election. Under the U.S.-Spanish Treaty of 1795, Van Buren tried to have the mutineers returned to Cuba (where the Spanish had purchased them via a slave auction) to face a trial and likely execution.
The case, however, proceeded through the Connecticut courts. In 1840, Story ruled that the Africans were indeed free and within their rights to take over the ship, adding that is was the "ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression to apply force against ruinous injustice."
A key contributor to this huge victory was former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, who argued the African's case before the Supreme Court. For the abolitionists, the Amistad case was a milestone, ranking in significance with the Dred Scott decision. But while the Scott case is covered in most American history books, the Amistad story has long been overlooked--even in some African-American history texts.
Allen, 47, stumbled upon the story of the Amistad uprising while browsing in a bookstore on the Howard University campus 14 years ago. "I was inspired, overwhelmed and upset that I had not heard the story," she recalls. She acquired the rights to William A. Owens' book Black Mutiny: The revolt on the Schooner Amistad, upon which her film is based. "This was too important a case," she says. "it involved John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, the Supreme Court, the international tribunal between Spain and Britain--too many big guns."
The triumph of Sengbe and his countrymen, Allen says, empowered her as she sought to get their story on the big screen. Along the way, she discovered that there were other Hollywood players pitching the story. David Wolper, the producer of the television miniseries Roots, and former Motown executive Suzanne DePasse had each tried and failed to sell studios on Amistad film concepts, according to Allen.
Though she spent more than a decade wading through a "big, ol' pit of rejection," Allen remained undaunted. Three years ago, she contacted DreamWorks to arrange a meeting with Steven Spielberg, a co-founder of the studio with Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. The Amistad film is the first DreamWorks project for Spielberg, who has received enormous acclaim for Schindler's List and mixed reaction to his directing of The Color Purple.
Allen, an admirer of Spielberg's Academy Award-winning depiction of the Holocaust, says that the second she finished her initial meeting with the filmmaker, she was certain he should direct Amistad. She identified with Spielberg's 10-year effort to obtain studio backing for Schindler's List and was moved by his poignant and evocative treatment of a German industrialist's effort to rescue scores of Jews from Nazi persecution. She also sensed that Spielberg's reaction to making a film about the Amistad rebellion was as passionate as his interest in telling Schindler's story.
"He was jazzed, and he immediately began to think about writers for the screenplay," Allen says. "But he was not convinced at first that he should be the director, even though I was." Perhaps Spielberg still felt the sting of criticism by observers who had said that he lacked the African-American sensibility necessary to do justice to Alice Walker's characters in The Color Purple. Or maybe he was aware of Spike Lee's vociferous and successful campaign to run director Norman Jewison away from a Malcolm X bio-flick.
The potential for controversy didn't faze Allen. She was determined to secure Spielberg's involvement and eventually she did. "I think if there was ever a movie done by a man who understands people in bondage, people suffering, people overcoming, it was Schindler's List," Allen says. "And besides, I needed a hot, strong filmmaker--someone who could handle a story that was epic."
She also needed to film this story with a less-than-epic $40 million budget-- chump change for a Spielberg project--and was pleased that the production stayed on course financially. Behind Spielberg came an international cast of actors, including Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Hawthorne (The Madness of King George), Djimon Hounsou (Stargate), Matthew McConaughey (A Time to Kill) and Pete Postlethwaite (In the Name of the Father). The screenplay was written by David Franzoni (Citizen Cohn) and Academy Award winner Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List).
The film also includes more than 40 African actors who portray the Amistad captives. Although many of the captives learned to read and write English while their court battle unfolded, their movie counterparts speak in the Mende dialect throughout the film. This is one of several key departures from fact that Allen felt was necessary to make the film more appealing. "To hear them speak in their native tongue is much more powerful," she says. "I'm comfortable with all the choices we made."
Another symbolic use of poetic license was the creation of Freeman's character, the abolitionist Joadson. Although no black abolitionists were involved in the Amistad court case, black men and women were at the heart of the abolitionist movement, and the Joadson character was a way to give credit to the work of people like Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Sarah Parker Remond and John Russwurm. The inclusion of Joadson leads to a key, and rather ironic, twist: Despite his free status and eagerness to help free the Africans, the social protocol of the times forces him to take a back seat to white abolitionists.
Though the credits for Amistad list her as producer, Allen used many more of her talents behind the scenes. "I gave Spanish translations to actors, taught the people playing missionaries how to sing, selected music for John Williams' score, worked on the script, and was involved with all of the cultural rituals of the Africans," she says. "All of my skills came into play."
Allen also is involved in a variety of Amistad-related projects. She worked with A&E's Biography series for a segment on Sengbe and helped the History Channel develop a feature about slavery. And in addition to doing the usual Hollywood promotional junkets, she will speak at college campuses across the country.
By sheer coincidence, a namesake of Sengbe is also on the Amistad production team. Cinque Henderson, a young Harvard graduate from North Carolina, is a DreamWorks executive who worked closely with Allen on the project. Henderson's parents named him after the heroic leader of the Amistad revolt. Allen, however, believes that their collaboration was no chance meeting: "There is a word that I believe in very strongly, and that's 'destiny'."
Perhaps the destiny of Amistad is to help close gaping holes in historical accounts of American slavery. "We need to tell the truth," says Allen, who also hopes that newcomers to the Amistad saga leave theaters with the burst of pride that she experienced. "I felt so powerful," says the energetic five-footer. "I felt like a big, tall Amazon."
Bennie M. Currie is a freelance writer in Chicago. Reprinted from American Visions Magazine December/January 1998.
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