Teaching American History and the Movie Amistad

These teaching notes are based on the lectures and workshops of the U.S. Embassy Teacher Academy “Lincoln’s Legacy: Nation Building, Democracy and the Question of Race and Civil Rights” and will refer to them. What follows is a lesson plan for advanced level students providing background information as well as pre-, while- and post-viewing assignments which address issues that could become topics of discussion or closer study.

General Background

The Movie Amistad (1997)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: David H. Franzoni
Major Cast: Djimon Hounsou (Cinque)
Matthew McConaughey (Roger Baldwin)
Anthony Hopkins (John Quincy Adams)
Morgan Freeman (Theodore Joadson)
Pete Postlewaithe (William Holabird)
Nigel Hawthorne (President Van Buren)

The Spielberg film tells the story of a group of slaves who, at the beginning of the film, overwhelm their Spanish captors on the ship Amistad and try in vain to return to Africa. Instead, they are taken to Connecticut, where they are brought to trial for murder. Local abolitionists take up their case and hire a young and inexperienced real estate lawyer to represent them. Their case is taken to every level of the American judiciary and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The genre is that of a courtroom drama or a social problem film. Though based on the true story of fifty-four Africans who were captured in Africa and brought to Cuba aboard the ship La Amistad, the movie contains some inaccurate or misleading information. Several characters are altered or added for the sake of the film’s dramatic effect. Amistad does, however, present a notable event in the abolitionist movement in impressive pictures. There are at least two scenes that contain graphic violence.

At 152 minutes running time, the film is too long for an uninterrupted screening in the classroom. Therefore, it has been divided into chapters (as they appear on the display of the DVD player) in the proposed lesson plan. Some smaller chapters have been left out. Most film chapters last about 10 minutes and are followed by student tasks. Where indicated, it is advisable to show the excerpts twice. Moreover, the movie offers a good opportunity to teach and discuss cinematic as well as rhetorical conventions in connection with the speech at the end of the film.

Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement

Slavery has existed since ancient times. People were captured in wars and forced into slavery. In the transatlantic trade of the eighteenth century, 10 to 12 million Africans were transported to North and South America and the Caribbean. In the so-called triangular trade at least 1.25 million Africans perished during the Atlantic crossing that could take two to three months. The slave trade was dominated by the British. Insatiable consumer demand (e.g. for cotton, sugar, cocoa and tobacco) drove the trade. Sugar became part of the British national diet and thus sustained the slave trade.

The Quakers were the first to voice opposition to slavery. In 1792, 400,000 Britons, particularly women, boycotted slave-grown sugar. In 1807, a bill was passed by Parliament abolishing the trade with enslaved people within the British colonies, followed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The leading British abolitionist politician of this era was William Wilberforce (1759–1833). In the United States, journalists, novel writers and preachers led the way to abolitionism—such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) Harriet Beacher Stowe (1811–1896), and John Brown (1800–1859).

In the U.S., slavery peaked in the nineteenth century, when the slaves mainly worked in the fields to meet the increased demand for sugar, cotton and tobacco. There were fewer slaves in the North, where they mostly worked as servants. By 1804, the anti-slavery movement, which was started by the Quakers in 1775, had succeeded in the North. New York abolished slavery in 1799. New Jersey was the last of the northern states to abolish slavery in 1804. The importation of slaves into the United States was officially banned in 1808. In the South, the abolitionist movement supported the Underground Railroad, a clandestine organization that helped Blacks escape to the North. In the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared that all slaves in areas currently in rebellion would be permanently free. Slavery was forbidden in the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865.

The U.S. Judicial System and the Film Amistad

The initial hearing of the Amistad case took place before a U.S. Circuit Court which referred it to the (lower) District Court as a civil case. The District Court ruled that the Africans be turned over to the President for return to Africa. The question was whether the Africans were born on Cuban plantations (and thus were slaves under Spanish law) or had been captured in Africa, which meant that they had been unlawfully acquired. District attorney William Holabird plays a very unpleasant and cynical role as prosecutor. But having listened to Cinque’s testimony and that of the witness Captain Fitzgerald, Judge Coughlin rather unexpectedly decides that the Africans cannot be slaves and that the Spanish sailors are guilty of illegal slave trade and murder. The decision is upheld by the Circuit Court of Appeals.

Unhappy with this outcome, President Van Buren has the case referred to the Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and has the ultimate legal authority in interpreting the U.S. Constitution. The President of the United States appoints the justices as vacancies occur, but the appointments must be confirmed by the Senate. The court consists of nine justices (one Chief Justice, eight Associate Justices), who may decide cases by majority. Their decisions can only be overturned by another Supreme Court decision.

Former President John Quincy Adams agrees to defend the Africans. He hopes to demonstrate that American courts are truly independent from outside influence and strongly suggests that slavery must be eliminated, even if that means drawing the country closer to civil war. The justices rule in favor of the Africans in an eight-to-one decision.

List of Characters

  • Cinque, a proud and intelligent African, is considered to be the leader of the group of African captives as he led the mutiny. He is one of the Mende people, whose language is called Mende as well.
  • Roger Baldwin is an inexperienced real estate attorney who takes on the Africans’ case in a regional district court trial. As the case develops, he grows from a lawyer who sees slaves as property into a fervent abolitionist who fights for the Africans with passionate determination.
  • Lewis Tappan is an advocate of abolition who promotes the cause of the Amistad captives and publishes newspapers. His The Emancipator is a famous anti-slavery newspaper.
  • Theodore Joadson is a (fictional) African-American abolitionist (and former slave) who joins his friend Tappan and plays an essential role in convincing Adams to defend the Africans in the Supreme Court.
  • President Van Buren is in the middle of his re-election campaign and only reluctantly deals with the case of the Amistad slaves when he realizes that the decision about their fate will influence his political future.
  • John Quincy Adams is the frail ex-President who eventually speaks on behalf of the Africans before the Supreme Court but is mostly seen tending flowers in his conservatory.
  • Southern Senator John C. Calhoun is a racist who strongly influences Van Buren.
  • The Spanish Queen Isabella II is eleven years old when the Amistad incident takes place and thus is portrayed as a girl whose counselors compose the letters concerning the case.


What are a few outstanding elements of character, tone, and gesture which the actor Morgan Freeman brings into the role of Theodore Joadson? Would you personally choose anyone else to play this part? If so, why? If not, why not?

Summaries of Selected Scenes and Tasks

Chapter 1 (5:09)

One of the black men (Cinque) on board the ship frees himself and then helps the others to unlock their chains. They fight and kill all the white sailors except two (Ruiz and Montez), who are supposed to sail them back to Africa. The conversation among the Africans is not subtitled, and so the viewers have to draw conclusions from what they see. As an opener to the film, the students might brainstorm about slavery throughout history and in America in particular, as well as cases of mutiny they know about from literature or film (for example, Mutiny on the Bounty).


Watch the first scene and make notes of what happens (preferably in English).


Summarize what happens in this scene (in writing or orally). If needed, make use of the following phrases: the bottom of a ship, low ceiling, lock (on a chain), metal spike, to show no pity/mercy, sword.


Find out about the two American presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren, as well as the Spanish Queen Isabella II (note their involvement with the issues of slavery and freedom) and present your findings to the class.

Chapters 3 and 4 (14:20)

After six weeks they run out of water and sail towards land. The Amistad is taken over by the American Navy and the Africans are brought to New Haven (Connecticut), where they are imprisoned. The Spanish Queen Isabella II (age 11) is informed about the incident and so is President Van Buren, who is campaigning for re-election and who fears that the slaves from the Amistad might damage his chances in the pro-slavery South. Then the viewer is acquainted with Lewis Tappan and his friend Theodore Joadson, two abolitionists, in their New Haven newspaper office .

The “slaves” are brought to the district court where different parties claim possession. The property lawyer Roger Baldwin offers Tappan and Joadson his help as the Blacks are considered material property (chattel).


Add information about the following parties and explain their roles.
– William Holabird, U.S. lawyer
– John Forsyth, Secretary of State
– Thomas Gedney, Richard Meade, naval officers
– Ruiz and Montez, Cuban sailors


Explain why Baldwin thinks he can help. Find out about the legal situation of slaves in the U.S. at that time and point out how this is conveyed in the film.


Collect information on the vessel La Amistad and present it to the class.

Chapter 5 (8:00)

The scene opens with John Quincy Adams, then a Congressman representing a Massachusetts constituency in the House of Representatives, apparently asleep during a meeting. Tappan and Joadson request a meeting with Adams and passionately, even boldly (Joadson), ask for Adams’ help which he refuses to provide. Over dinner, Baldwin explains the legal background of the case against the Africans. He enters into a discussion with Tappan and Joadson on the issue of whether they were illegally acquired and whether they are to be considered material goods or human beings. A group of religious people come and pray in front of the prison and sing “Amazing Grace.” (For background information on the role of religion see: “Evangelical Religion and Evangelical Democracy” by David Goldfield.)


Referring to your findings, compare the John Quincy Adams in history and the Adams as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.


Summarize the standpoints of Joadson and Adams during their conversation. (Useful vocabulary: segregation, friend and foe, advocate of abolition, erudition, grace, vital task, to abolish slavery, to aim high/low)

Chapter 7 and 8 (13:20)

As it is crucial for the case, Baldwin wants to find out where the Africans come from. He visits Cinque in the prison. By drawing maps, Baldwin finds proof for his assumption that they were captured in Africa. Baldwin and Joadson search the Amistad for evidence. Baldwin finds papers that confirm that the Africans originally sailed on a Portuguese vessel, the Tecora, which was engaged in illegal slave trade.

President Van Buren is shown in his office with his advisors. As the case of the slaves is of great importance for the future of the country and could lead to civil war, it is decided that the judge who is hearing the case should be replaced.


Describe the conversation between Cinque and Baldwin. Propose ways that could solve their language problem.


Explain why Joadson breaks down on the ship. Suppose he keeps a personal diary. Write an entry that covers the last few days. Alternative: Tappan needs an article for the newspaper “The Emancipator” about the case of the “Amistad slaves.” Write this newspaper article.


With what arguments does Secretary of State Forsyth persuade the President to replace the judge of the District Court?

Chapter 9 (8:00)

Joadson visits Adams again, this time in his greenhouse, and asks him what he would do. He advises Joadson to find out who the Africans are. During their talk, Adams moves a plant so that it will get sufficient sunlight. In the meantime, Baldwin has found a translator. One of the Africans has died and the translator provides the Americans with information about the Mende habits. The Christians sing again.


“In court, whoever tells the best story wins. . . . What is the Africans’ story? . . . You and Baldwin have shown what they are; they’re Africans. But you don’t know who they are. If you find out something about them, their story will become interesting.” Interpret Adams’ statement.


Explain the symbolism of the plant.


Give a short account of how the translator is found and compare it with the approaches you had thought of.

Chapter 11 (10:00)

This chapter is a flashback. Cinque tells the story of how they were captured, brought to Lomboko slave fortress (in Sierra Leone), transported on the vessel Tecora to Cuba and how they were sold there and were transferred to the Amistad. The Africans are treated cruelly on board the Tecora. (The students might be upset by the violence shown if they see it without preparation.) In the meantime, the Africans have been brought to court again and Cinque finishes his story there. The Africans have been given clothes.

This chapter should be watched without tasks. However, as an introduction the function of flashbacks in literature and film can be discussed.

Chapter 12, 13 and 14 (18:00)

District Attorney William Holabird doubts that Cinque’s “tale” is true and claims that it makes no sense. The British Captain Fitzgerald, however, confirms Cinque’s story. One of the Africans is shown looking at pictures in the Bible. The camera shows faces and objects in close-up and thus Cinque’s agony is portrayed. The scene culminates in Cinque calling “Give us free!” After the different parties have been heard, the judge retreats. There are cross-cuts between him thinking and praying at a chapel and the Africans talking about the Bible back in prison. Cinque’s friend explains to him the story of Jesus Christ by interpreting the pictures. When they are brought back to court, they pass by Christians once more. When giving his verdict, the judge asks and answers the fundamental question: “Where they born in Africa? I believe they were.” And thus he declares the Africans free. They chant.

Before viewing this part, the students should be introduced to (or revise) camera angles and movements and the scenes should probably be shown twice.

(Vocabulary: to rid oneself of evidence, inventory, provisions required for a journey, ghastly arithmetic, poundage, to have no merit, thorough reflection, utmost faith, to misrepresent sth., on the charge of)


Analyze the different camera angles and movements throughout the court room scene and comment on their effect. (This task could be done in groups. The groups might concentrate on Cinque/Captain Fitzgerald/ Holabird/Cinque’s friend.)


Comment on the role of religion as conveyed in the film and in these particular scenes.


What is the purpose of the camera movements during the judge’s final speech?

Chapter 15 (3:30)

During a dinner at the White House, the connection between the abolition of slavery and an impending civil war is discussed. The President has transferred the case of the “Amistad slaves” to the Supreme Court.


What arguments are put forward by Senator Calhoun?

Chapter 19 (06:00)

John Quincy Adams receives Cinque at his home. In the greenhouse he tells him about the origin of his flowers, including an African violet. He explains in metaphorical language why this case is so exceptional. Cinque tells Adams of a Mende tradition, which says when a member of the tribe needs help they appeal to their ancestors.

(Vocabulary: to invoke one’s ancestors, to summon the spirit of, to come to someone’s aid, disrespectful, to have righteousness on one’s side)


Referring to Adams being a former president, Cinque says, “A chief cannot become anything less than a chief, not even in death.” Discuss this statement, also referring to great statesmen.

Chapter 20 and 21: Adams’s Speech (10:00)

Adams gives his speech in front of the Supreme Court stating that this is the most important case ever brought before the court as it concerns the very nature of man. He refers to letters exchanged between the Secretary of State, John Forsyth, and the Queen of Spain, Isabella II, who calls the American courts incompetent. He then directs the attention of the judges to a publication of the office of the President called “The Executive Review” in which slavery is defended by “a keen mind of the South.” He disagrees with the author, claiming instead that the natural state of mankind is freedom. He asks Cinque to stand up and explains that if he were not a black man, he would be considered a hero as he fought for his freedom. Adams walks over to where the Declaration of Independence hangs on the wall and points out its meaning. Adams continues by telling his audience about the Mende tradition of evoking their ancestors in hopeless situations and walks past the statues of former presidents saying that they have not been asked for guidance for a long time. He concludes by stating, “Who we are is who we were.” And that they need strength, courage and wisdom to triumph over fears and prejudices.

This speech is very impressive. It contains many rhetorical devices which should be analyzed. For that purpose it should be shown twice. Furthermore, it may be compared with other texts, e.g. The Emancipation Proclamation or the Gettysburg Address, both by Abraham Lincoln. The latter is available on the NAXOS audio book Great Speeches in History, 1996 (ISBN 9626340835); Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is online at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/22082 and the Gettysburg Address is available at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/4.


Point out John Quincy Adams’s line of argument. State to what extent you consider it appropriate.


While listening to the speech for a second time take down notes about the rhetorical devices that are used. Explain their effect. (Different groups of students can be assigned a rhetorical device to concentrate on.)


In your opinion, how convincing is this speech? How will the judges decide? Keep in mind that seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices are Southern slave owners. Point out what the decisive argument might have been.

Rhetorical devices include:

  • repetition (“truth,” “freedom”)
  • parallelism (“a court that will do . . . / a court that can be . . . / a court . . .” “He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try . . . ,” “to ancient times, to biblical times” )
  • metaphor (“The long powerful arm of the executive office,” “the last battle of the American Revolution”)
  • simile (“the truth has been driven from this case like a slave,” “toyed with like a doll”)
  • irony (“At least I’m sure the President hopes you all read it”)
  • allusion (to Patrick Henry, hero of the American Revolution known for having said: “Give me liberty, or give me death.”)

Chapter 22 (05:00)

It is night. Baldwin and Joadson are shown waiting. The judge states that the treaty with Spain is inapplicable as the Africans cannot be considered merchandise and thus the blacks are not slaves but free individuals. They are released and can return to their homes in Africa. There is a moving scene between Cinque and Baldwin.

Chapter 23 (03:40)

Short scenes depict what happens to the different characters and subtitles provide the historical background: the liberation and destruction of the slave fortress by the British; Van Buren, who has been defeated by Harrison, playing the harp; the Africans returning home to Sierra Leone; Queen Isabella and a scene from the Civil War.

Critical Essay Assignments

  1. Collect information on the real case of the “Amistad slaves” and compare it with its depiction in the movie. Try to explain why the writer of the screenplay and the director decided to make these changes. Discuss whether, in your opinion, it is legitimate to change historical facts in movies.
  2. Taking into consideration the encounter of the Africans and the Americans in the movie as well as the efforts made to understand one another, what may be learned from this film about cross-cultural confusion and understanding?
  3. A central theme in Amistad is justice. In what sense is justice “blind” and how does justice “see”? A starting point for the discussion could be this statement from Adams’ speech about Cinque: “This man is black. We can all see this. But can we also see as easily that which is equally true? That he is the only true hero in this room.”
  4. Watch the scenes again in which Van Buren meets with his counselors. What evidence do you find in this film to suggest that the American Civil War is dawning?
  5. Study John Dean’s essay on “Teaching History through Film.” After having watched the movie Amistad, discuss to what extent such films are a valid medium to teach history, even if they are not entirely correct.



Amistad. DVD. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2006.Hadden, Sally E. Review of Amistad. H-Law, H-Net Reviews, December, 1997. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=14856 (accessed Sept. 15, 2010).

“Teaching With Documents: The Amistad Case,” http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/amistad/ (accessed Sept. 15, 2010).


Christine Meißner works as an instructor at the Abendgymnasium Prenz­lauer Berg, Berlin, and has been teaching languages in diverse adult education settings. She studied English and Dutch at the University of Leipzig and is currently working on a project that examines neuroscientific aspects of second chance education. Christine Meißner also carried out a pilot study about coaching for adult learners in a formal learning process, qualifying teachers as coaches to eliminate barriers toward learning. She is a prolific text book author with the well-known educational publishing house Klett.
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