Amistad: Reigniting Fears Through History, by B.B. Robinson – January 1998

Like most Americans, European-Americans without racist attitudes fear a weak economy, a bad president or schools unable to educate their children. However, many African-Americans believe that European-Americans with racist attitudes still harbor a genuine fear of the day when so-called “minorities” will dominate the nation’s population. U.S. Bureau of the Census projections confirm this will happen around the year 2050. European-American racists must fear that day the way their forefathers feared Nat Turner.

Amistad, the new blockbuster movie, can ignite that same fear through its coverage of history. It is a great movie that should be seen because it enables us to get in touch with a history that is only 160 years in our past. Like Roots, it forces us to look reality in the face — to remember that European-Americans were masters and Africans were imported as slaves. That reality is, in itself, is enough to engender fear.

Some African-Americans fear that slavery is not that far in the past and, as Amistad reminds us, unfavorable manipulation of the law is still possible. The fear of the European-American racist is, given certain conditions, African-Americans and other minorities still might resort to “mutiny.” Mutiny is synonymous with death for European-Americans and Amistad is synonymous with mutiny.

There are many lessons and images in Amistad. One such image is sure to invoke fear on the part of European-Americans and African-Americans alike. It is the most memorable seen in which it is night, rainy, bolts of lightning flashing. Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), the leader of the African mutineers, and his countrymen break their chains in the hull of the slaveship La Amistad, force their way onto the deck and attack their captors. Cinque wrestles a sword from the captain’s and overpowers him. The conclusion of this scene is presented from the captains perspective. He is on his back on the deck looking up into the face of a blue-black African whose face appears much more menacing amid the storm and confusion. This is the last face the captain sees before he is run through with the sword, and it is a scene that is repeated later in the film as part of a flashback. This image is sure to make some European-Americans cross the street when African-American males approach on dark and rainy nights.

On the other hand, when viewed properly, Amistad contains several important and positive images and lessons that have little to do with fear. First, there is the lesson that blacks are capable of drawing on mental resources to solve problems. Cinque shows this ability as he helps solve the intricate legal case involving him and countrymen. Second, there is the lesson that it is nearly impossible to help others if you cannot help yourself. This is made clear by Mr. Jolson (Morgan Freeman) an African-American businessman who dedicates his energies and wealth to freeing the Africans, while working-class African-Americans can only look on in despair. Third, there is the lesson that one should never give up when the cause is right, because forces beyond your control may move others to act in your favor when prospects appear most bleak. This is borne out by President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) who repeatedly refuses petitions to help Cinque and his countrymen until it becomes absolutely essential that he do so.

You should see the movie for so many other reasons — ones you will recognize after the fact. But remember that the extent to which Amistad is misunderstood and produces fear determines the level of distrust among African- and European-Americans. Without trust, there are limits to mutually beneficial exchange, and this limits our progress toward reconciling ourselves to the history of Europeans and Africans in America, which was all made possible by ships like the La Amistad.

(B. B. Robinson, a member of the national Advisory Council of the African-American leadership group Project 21, is President of Eye on the Media, Inc. [McLean, VA].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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