Echoes of a Forgotten Past
The story of the Amistad takes us from the villages of Africa, across the high seas, to prisons in New England, and into the halls of the United States Supreme Court
The story of the Amistad takes us from the villages of Africa,
across the high seas, to prisons in New England, and into the
halls of the United States Supreme Court.
The charge: murder. The repercussions: momentous.
Free men and slaves, commoners and royalty, activists and Presidents
confront one another and, ultimately, the issues of power and
"Amistad," directed by Steven Spielberg, began its journey
to the screen over 13 years ago. In 1984, producer Debbie Allen
came across two volumes of essays and articles, titled Amistad
I and II, written by African-American writers, historians and
philosophers. She recalls, "I didn't understand the significance
of the name until I opened to the preface. On one page it told
the whole story."
She couldn't imagine why she had never even heard of the landmark
incident, or of the courage and determination of the leader of
the rebellion, Sengbe Pieh, whom the Spaniards called "Cinque."
"I was filled with many different emotions. I felt empowered
and excited that this had actually happened, yet I also felt robbed
and cheated that I had never been taught about this in school.
I knew it was a true story -- a pivotal moment in time -- that
should be told to the world."
Allen set out on a personal quest to bring the story of the Amistad
to the big screen. In 1984, she optioned the rights to Black Mutiny,
an historical account of the incident written by William Owen.
For more than a decade, she researched and developed the project,
but was met with little interest from the filmmaking community.
"What kept me going was belief," Allen attests. "I
believed in the power and the truth of this story. I believed
that the enormous tapestry upon which it occurred related to all
our ancestors -- the Africans, the abolitionists, the pro-slavers,
the Spanish, the Cubans, the British... It tells us all a lot
about our history."
Nearly a decade passed, and while Allen found success with other
projects, "Amistad" seemed stonewalled. After seeing
Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," however, her
hopes were renewed. "I realized that here was a filmmaker
who could understand and embrace this project and help me get
She met first with co-heads of DreamWorks Pictures Walter Parkes
and Laurie MacDonald, who wasted no time in setting up a meeting
for her with Spielberg. "Steven wanted to know everything
about the story. He was just insatiable," Allen relates.
"We had a fantastic, emotional conversation that went on
for about an hour and a half, and I knew we were going to make
this movie. After all those years, it happened so quickly."
Spielberg acknowledges that he had only a passing knowledge of
the Amistad prior to his meeting with Allen. However, as he notes,
"I was inspired by her passion for the story. She had a remarkable
ability to make me see it through her eyes."
Sifting through the visual material Allen had collected through
the years, Spielberg felt he could also see it through the eyes
of those who had lived the story. "I was struck by some of
the images of the Africans that were etched by a court artist,"
he asserts. "You never saw their faces, just their silhouetted
profiles. Yet I could look at those profiles and feel who these
people were...just based on the si
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