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AMISTAD

Culture Clash
A significant casting hurdle still remained for the filmmakers: finding the Amistad Africans

A significant casting hurdle still remained for the filmmakers: finding the Amistad Africans. From the start, they sought to cast real African actors for those roles.

They began by seeking Africans from the Mende, Temne and Kissi tribes, all of which are represented in the film. The search began in cities with populations of first generation Africans who were working as actors. The filmmakers then traveled to Africa itself where they contacted casting directors in Sierra Leone, while local theatre companies compiled tapes of actors. The international casting call extended to England, where a British casting agent sent tapes of first and second generation African actors living there.

The core group of featured Africans was ultimately comprised of actors originating from several countries in West Africa, including Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana. In addition to several professional actors, dancers and musicians, the cast also includes a Harvard undergraduate, a three-time Olympic runner, and a professor of biology.

Assembling the group was only half the battle; the filmmakers still had to find a way to make the culture come to life. "We had to create a community," explains Allen, who led the actors through a two-week crash course on culture--including dance, music and improvisation--to help them prepare for the emotionally and physically demanding scenes.

"The African people--then and now--are steeped in their own rituals, their own society," Allen reveals. "I had to gather every inkling of information to pull together the core of who these people needed to be. Then we went through every scene...I challenged them to get into the mindset of what they were dealing with."

Part of what the African cast would be dealing with during the course of filming was reenacting the Middle Passage, the torturous journey from Africa, when African captives endured weeks and sometimes months of being whipped and starved, chained together in the cargo holds of the slave ships. Allen did not spare the cast in their rehearsals. "We went through the pain and the agony," Allen says, "and when they shot that scene, it was truly one of the most difficult."

Producer Colin Wilson says, "There are images from the filming of this movie that are going to be permanently imprinted in our minds, because we felt that we actually witnessed what the Africans were subjected to on their journey to freedom. It tore many of us apart emotionally. There were several sequences where the visuals were so powerful that many cast and crew members were reduced to tears."

Collectively, the Africans and the filmmakers joined in a shared learning and teaching experience. "Not surprisingly, I learned a great deal from what they were able to impart to me about their own history," Spielberg offers. "They knew about the kidnapping from homes and slavery...but they didn't know a lot about the Middle Passage, so we explored together the horrors of that period of time."

Dr. Clifton Johnson, the creator of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans--whom Allen calls her mentor on the project -- led the filmmakers to Dr. Arthur Abraham, one of the world's leading scholars of the Mende culture. A highly respected historian, educator and economist in his native Sierra Leone, Abraham was a Fulbright-Hays Scholar-in-Residence at the Amistad Research Center in 1977, then housed at Dillard University in New Orleans. Dr. Abraham advised the filmmakers on the d

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