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The film Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, was about a slave ship that became ingrained in American politics between 1839 and 1841. Amistad, covers many different forms of the African Slave Trade. This film portrayed the ways in which Amistad was involved in not only a controversial Supreme Court case, but also how it was exposed to the brutality of slavery, divisions between citizens, corruption, and the political system in America. The Supreme Court case United States v. The Amistad was a critical case because it embodied the mentalities and practices of the nation back in the day. The Amistad Supreme Court case also affected how the Northern and Southern states would develop in the coming years. The Amistad case was one of the factors that eventually contributed to American Civil War.
In the excerpt of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano the author, writes about the brutality of slavery and how he had experienced it. Equiano writes, “One day they had taken a number of fishes; and when they had killed and satisfy themselves with as many as they thought fair to our Astonishment who were on the deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat, as we expected, they toss the remaining fish into the seat again, although we bagged and paid for some as well as we could, but in vain; and some of my countrymen, being pressed my hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no one saw them, I’m trying to get a little privately; but they were discovered, and the attempt procured them some very severe floggings.” This quote from the excerpt really puts images in the minds of people of how unjust slaves would be treated and what they had to go through: hunger and beat. Until such thing is actually witnessed, it often does not impact people as much. In the film, similar horrors of slavery were projected. When slavery was taking place illegally off of the Western Coast of Africa by Spanish slavers, the owners would unjustly whip the slaves. When African people were loaded on to the Tecora (slave ship), they were not given proper care or nourishment. More often than not, the slaves would not get enough food to eat and become malnourished. Many times when slave owners felt as if they would get caught for illegally transporting slaves, they would kill them. The Amistad ship was extremely inhumane. As shown in the film, a woman and her baby freely jumped off of the ship in to the ocean. Going back to the excerpt from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano he explores a similar situation of what these slaves would do. “…, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chain down to the decks, lest we should leave into the water: and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so…”. The torture that was experienced on the slave ship was unimaginable. Many men, women, and children were unjustly killed because of how profitable it was to exploit others. The unjust transporting and caring of slaves was horrific and was correctly presented in the film.
Exchange of slavery, demonstrates to the people on how morally corrupt political systems can indeed be, and the people who make it happen. Men’s moral hypocrisy due to slavery has been induced by European education, that is to say, men have been taught to see Africans as unequal citizens. This was illustrated in the film as remarks were made regarding handling slaves as property or livestock. Africans defending attorney, Roger Sherman Baldwin, put forward the idea of making the slave case regarding property for the abolitionists who tried to help Africans gain freedom. Sherman stated that one can win a case over property, which was his specialty as an attorney. Since Africans were regarded as inferior by people in Europe and America, both populations claimed they could handle Africans as property. Such form of moral corruption contributes to the film’s disgusting cruelty and political corruption. Men were also morally corrupt because of how lucrative the slave trade was. They also didn’t care for their acts because they thought it was worth the amount of money they would profit. Barbarity is used and seen in many unlawful acts to make money. There are still terrible atrocities committed in today’s world for economic gain.
It was due to political corruption that the case was heard numerous times until it finally reached the level of the Supreme Court. Lawyer Roger Stephen Baldwin, and his abolitionist colleagues Lewis Tappa and Theodore Joadson prevailed three times in the case of the Amistad. Two of those victories came at the state level, and one arose to the Supreme Court. At a period in time, John Forsyth the secretary of state was under strain from the South, Spain, and the President, Martin Van Buren. This was to ensure that Africans remained the property of Spain. John Forsyth replaced the judge and eliminated the jury in order to win the favor of the judge. Forsyth took a young lawyer to the stand in order to establish laws against the Africans. The explanation behind Forsyth’s plan to acquire a young judge was the ability to manipulate his decision by using issues like bribery and reputation.
As a young judge, they would most likely be more persuasive because of their lack of experience and honor in the law field. The young judge, however, became confused about whether he should listen to Forsyth or his religious beliefs. His sense of morality assured him that he should free the Africans, no matter its effect towards his career. Forsyth ‘s plan backfired when the judge came to his senses. This example of political corruption at the time shows necessity for stronger laws to protect both the legal system and people because of a lack of separation of powers. This was not the end of corruption. The case was thrown out again and moved to the supreme court where seven of the judges were southerners and two were northerners. The President and the South assumed that they would finally get their ruling, but once again their undermining schemes continued to fail. The United States court system experienced corruption multiple times, but in the end it prevailed and the Africans were set free.
A final theme The Amistad displayed was the division between the American public. Most South Americans engaged in slavery because it was their ‘way of life’. Southerners presumed that everyone had slavery to sustain their lifestyle since they assumed the country was operated by a free labor force or slaves. Nevertheless, in the North there were many religious abolitionist communities who insisted that Africans were equal human beings and that they should not be treated like animals. Many abolitionist groups had been consistently seen protesting in front of federal buildings. As shown in the film, religious abolitionists were seen singing sacred songs, while pro-slavery people harassed lawyer Roger Stephen Baldwin and threw things at him. As a result, The Amistad enlightened the public about the rising tensions, ideologies, and various factions of people like religious groups, and how racist people were in the mid-19th century United States.
Due to the split of the Transatlantic Slave Trade between the North and the South, it influenced the political developments in the United States. The United States government showed great flaws throughout the separation of powers in particular. Corruption has come to light between the President, the State Secretary, and the courts. The three branches of the United States should be independent from each other while preserving checks and balances at the same time. By replacing judges and juries, Martin Van Buren tried to corrupt the courts to help him with political gains and thus be re-elected. Martin Van Buren’s plan failed however, and he was not re-elected to yet another presidential term as a result of the liberation of the Africans. The South was upset and tensions kept arising. The Southerners no longer viewing the government of the United States to be equal and inclusive of their views. This prompted the Southern States to cease and declare themselves as a new country. This cessation lead to the American Civil War between the Northern and Southern States.
Ultimately, thanks to the film, Amistad provided its audiences a lot of lessons about how American and African culture were influenced by slave trade. The vile and cruel treatment of slaves was indeed exposed through the film. The moral corruption can be thought to be caused by a poor belief system and the desire for money. As a result, government officials became corrupt and tried to rig the system. Despite the corruption, the good prevailed. The men, women, and children of Africa would be set free, and America would be fighting a bloody civil war. The civil war was a necessary evil in the United States’ preservation and eventual abolition of slavery.
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