The film featured a notable cast led by Anthony Hopkins as former President John Quincy Adams. The film also features a portrayal of another president by a distinguished actor: Martin Van Buren is played by Nigel Hawthorne. Other cast members include Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConaughey. David Franzoni's screenplay was based on the book, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (1987), by the historian Howard Jones.
The film begins in the depths of the schooner La Amistad, a ship carrying Africans captured from Sierra Leone and sold in Cuba into slavery. The film's protagonist, Sengbe Pieh (Djimon Hounsou), most known by his Mende name, "Cinqué" (meaning "fifth"), picks the lock on his shackles. Freeing a number of his companions, Cinquè initiates a rebellion on the ship. In the ensuing fighting, several Mende and most of the ship's crew are killed, except the owners Ruiz and Montez, who the Africans believe can navigate for them to return to West Africa. After six weeks have passed, the ship is found by a United States military vessel. The Spaniards have tricked the Africans by sailing up the Atlantic coast. Captured by the Americans off Long Island, the ship and its Mende passengers are taken to New Haven, Connecticut. The Africans are imprisoned while awaiting the court trial to determine property ownership of the vessel and whether the Mende will become slaves, or whether they will be recognized as free. At this time, Great Britain, the United States and Spain had all prohibited the international slave trade. The Spanish owners claimed the slaves were born on a Cuban plantation and thus legal as domestic slaves.
The film shifts to Washington, D.C., where the elderly John Quincy Adams, former President and sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts, meets two of the country's leading abolitionists: the freed slave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and activist Lewis Tappan (Stellan Skarsgård), both of whom seek Adams' help for the court case. Adams refuses to help at first. The current President of the United States, Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), is under pressure by the Spanish Queen Isabella II (Anna Paquin), who is demanding compensation for the ship and the market value of the slaves.
At a preliminary hearing in a federal district court in New Haven, the Africans are charged with "insurrection on the high seas." The two abolitionists enlist the help of a young attorney specializing in property law: Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey).
As the hearings drag on, Baldwin and Joadson approach Adams for advice.
At the city docks, a black sailor in the Royal Navy, James Covey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is located. He speaks an African language and becomes a translator and the lawyers are able to learn how Cinque became a slave. In a district court ruling, Judge Coglin (Jeremy Northam) dismisses all claims of ownership of the Africans. He rules that the Africans were captured illegally and not born on Cuban plantations; orders the arrest of the Amistad's owners on charges of slave-trading; and authorizes the United States to convey the Amistad Africans back to Africa. In Washington, political conflict threatens the ruling. Speaking to the Spanish Ambassador to Washington, Senator John C. Calhoun (Arliss Howard) from South Carolina attacks President Van Buren stressing the economic importance of slaves in the South. Calhoun suggests that, if the government frees the Amistad Africans, the South will go to war. With his advisers' warning of the heightened sectional threat of civil war, President Van Buren orders that the case be submitted to the US Supreme Court on appeal. The Court is dominated by Southern slaveholder justices.
Needing a knowledgeable ally, Baldwin and Joadson meet again with John Quincy Adams, who has been following the case carefully. Adams, decides to assist the case. At the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams gives a passionate speech in defense of the Africans. Justice Joseph Story (featuring Associate Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in a cameo role) announces the Supreme Court's ruling: because the Amistad Africans were illegally kidnapped, United States laws on slave ownership do not apply. As free men, the Africans had the right to fight to escape their illegal confinement. The Supreme Court authorizes the release of the Africans and their transportation to Africa, if they so wish. Cinquè bids emotional farewells to his American companions; he shakes Adams' hand, gives Joadson his lion tooth (his only memento of Africa), and thanks Baldwin in English and in Mende. The film's last scenes show British Royal Marines assault the Lomboko Slave Fortress, killing the slavers and freeing Africans from its dungeons, Martin Van Buren losing his re-election campaign, and Isabella II learning of the Africans' release.
Amistad received mainly positive reviews. Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today summed up the feelings of many reviewers when she wrote: "as Spielberg vehicles go, Amistad — part mystery, action thriller, courtroom drama, even culture-clash comedy — lands between the disturbing lyricism of Schindler's List and the storybook artificiality of The Color Purple." Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, writing: Amistad, like Spielberg's Schindler's List, is about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. What is most valuable about Amistad is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims."
The film was a modest financial success. It cost $36 million to make and had box office receipts of $44,229,441. Following is a trailer for the film:
I hope you enjoyed this theme of Presidents in Movies. The theme for May will be "Almost Presidents".