Vital Signs

A Clever Diversion

Produced by Steven Spielberg, Debbie Allen, and Colin Wilson
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by David Franzoni
Released by Dreamworks

If Amistad is not yet a household word like E.T. or Jurassic Park, it may soon be with the power of Steven Spielberg behind it. Amistad is really two movies. One, about the 19th-century slave commerce between West Africa and Latin America, is a powerful piece of filmmaking. The other, about American politics and law, is completely hokey and misleading.

Nobody knows for sure, but from the mid-1500's to the mid-1800's, 11-15 million black Africans were transported to the New World, a vast undeveloped region with a voracious appetite for unskilled labor. Every maritime nation in Europe participated in this trade. Only about six percent of the Africans ended up in North America, the vast majority going to South America and the Caribbean. By the time of the Amistad incident (1839), the market was largely limited to Cuba (a Spanish colony) and Brazil (a Portuguese dependency). And the only shippers involved were Spaniards, Portuguese, and New Englanders.

In case you haven't heard, the Amistad was a Spanish ship bound from West Africa with captured slaves to be sold in Cuba. The captives revolted and killed most of the crew. After drifting for a long time,...

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