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One of the Best! This movie is on TWM's short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.

SUBJECTS — U.S./1812 - 1860 & Diversity;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Justice; Courage; Rebellion;
        Human Rights;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Caring; Citizenship.
Age: 14+; MPAA Rating -- R (for violence and language); Drama; 1996; 138 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Description: This movie is a fictionalized account of the 1839 revolt by illegally enslaved Africans aboard the Spanish ship, Le Amistad. When the ship was seized on the high seas by a U.S. Navy vessel, abolitionists filed a court case to free the Africans. The trial and subsequent appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court highlighted to the public the evils of slavery and is seen as a major step toward turning the North against the South's "peculiar institution." The litigation involved a sitting President of the United States, a former President, and the Queen of Spain. For the captives, the outcome would determine whether they lived their lives in freedom or in slavery.

Rationale for Using the Movie: Amistad illustrates the horrors of the slave trade as it clarifies the divisive nature of the slavery issue in the United States. It exposes the tolerance of slavery by most Northerners as well as the power of the abolitionist movement. Moreover, the separation of powers in the U.S. Government, the workings of the court system, and the historical figure of John Quincy Adams are all important elements in the story

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: History and ELA classes: students will gain insight into the experience of captives, the efforts of abolitionists and the legal issues involved in slavery. They will exercise their research and writing skills through assignments at the film's end.

Possible Problems: Moderate: This film includes violence and brief nudity in its depictions of the captives' ordeal. Amistad contains many historical errors, although the broad outline of the story is accurate.

Enrichment Worksheets are a TWM innovation containing text and questions designed to get students thinking. Questions are focused on comprehension, application, analysis, syntheses or evaluation. Questions can be answered in class or as homework, as quickwrites, journal entries, formal essays, or research papers. For a version of the Worksheet in word processing format, click here.
Post-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet for Amistad

The Africans on board the Amistad had been seized and transported to Cuba, a Spanish territory, after Spain had outlawed the slave trade. The holding of the Supreme Court at the end of the trial was based on the law of Spain. The Court stated that:

. . . They are natives of Africa, and were kidnapped there, and were unlawfully transported to Cuba, in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain, and the most solemn edicts and declarations of that government. By those laws, and treaties, and edicts, the African slave trade is utterly abolished; the dealing in that trade is deemed a heinous crime; and the Negroes thereby introduced into the dominions of Spain, are declared to be free. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, 593.
The right of insurrection is a natural right of all men. It is the right to rise up and throw off an evil regime, and more broadly, to take violent action against oppressors. The right of insurrection is recognized in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The Supreme Court recognized the captives' right of insurrection and rejected the claim that they were pirates or murderers:
If then, these negroes are not slaves, but are kidnapped Africans, who, by the laws of Spain itself, are entitled to their freedom, and were kidnapped and illegally carried to Cuba, and illegally detained and restrained on board the Amistad; there is no pretence to say, that they are pirates or robbers. We may lament the dreadful acts, by which they asserted their liberty, and took possession of the Amistad, and endeavored to regain their native country; but they cannot be deemed pirates or robbers in the sense of the law of nations... The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, 593 & 594.
Question 1: What irony can be found in the fact that the courts issued this decision at a time when slavery remained legal in the U.S.?

The case of the Amistad had lasting effects on the United States for at least two reasons. Once it was recognized that the Amistad Africans had the same rights as anyone to freedom, to return to their families, and to revolt against their enslavers, the question then arose: "How are these black people, born in Africa, any different from black people born into slavery in the United States?" The obvious answer was that an accident of birth should make no difference at all. Once it was admitted that the Amistad Africans had the right to their freedom, there was no logical justification for the continued enslavement of blacks in the United States. Dramatically brought to the public's attention by the Amistad incident, this logic turned many in the North against slavery. But abolitionists were still not a majority. That didn't happen until sometime during the Civil War.

Question 2: Although the arguments of the abolitionists, as demonstrated by the case of the Amistad Africans are logical and compelling, the U.S. had to fight a bitter civil war to end slavery. What may be some of the reasons people in the North might have wanted to continue the practice of slavery?

The second lasting effect of the Amistad incident was that the committee of abolitionists formed to defend and care for the Amistad Africans stayed together. After the captives returned to Africa, the committee sent a mission to Christianize them and other Africans. The committee developed into the American Missionary Association ("AMA") when it merged with two other missionary antislavery societies in 1846. For the next hundred years, the AMA sought to enhance educational opportunities for blacks and other minorities in the United States.

After 1850, the AMA focused primarily on abolitionist activities. During the Civil War the AMA opened schools for slaves freed by the Union Armies. These schools were open to all students and often operated as integrating institutions during Reconstruction. As the South recovered from the effects of the war and developed public school systems, the AMA gave its elementary and secondary schools, numbering more than 500, to state and local governments. It then concentrated on improving and expanding colleges for blacks in the South. Ten predominantly black colleges arose from the AMA's efforts: Atlanta University, Berea College, Dillard University, Fisk University, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), Howard University, Huston-Tillotson College, Le Moyne College, Talladega College, and Tougaloo College. The AMA also conducted educational and other social programs for Native Americans, Asians, and migrant laborers.

Question 3: Religion played a significant role in achieving freedom for slaves and assisting former slaves and black Americans as a whole to build a decent life. What do you recall from your study of the Civil Rights Movement that indicates how the impact of churches remains important in the advance of black Americans?

Although the film does a fine job of illustrating the issues and beliefs leading to the Civil War, it commits an historical error in the unduly harsh portrayal of the abolitionist movement. The abolitionists were serious forward-looking people. History has proved that they were right to protest a barbaric and inhumane institution. Yet in the film, abolitionists are shown praying and singing religious songs outside of the Africans' prison. The implication is that they should have been doing something to help the captives. Their actions are portrayed as trivial. However, these abolitionists were "bearing witness." Their purpose was to awaken the conscience of the country to the sin of slavery as well as to the plight of the Amistad Africans. "Bearing witness" has been an important part of any movement for social change from biblical times to the present. This power and honorable history of bearing witness is not only missed in the film, it is denigrated.

Another error lies in the fact that there is no basis to believe that Mr. Arthur Tappan, an historical figure, wanted the Amistad Africans sacrificed for the benefit of the abolitionist movement. The scene in which he proposes this was, most certainly, placed in the film to raise the question of whether the ends justify the means. Arthur Tappan 's life was devoted to freeing slaves. Both Tappan and his brother faced serious consequences, sometimes violent, from their anti-slavery activities. Lewis Tappan's dry-goods store and Arthur's home were attacked by angry pro-slavery mobs. Both men had a price on their heads in the South and on one occasion a slave's ear was found in Arthur's mailbox.



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Post-Viewing Enrichment Worksheet
      Discussion Questions
      Post-Viewing Handout


Additional Helpful Background:
      Other Websites and Lesson Plans
      Historical Error in Amistad

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges to Reading
      Selected Awards & Cast

Review the worksheet for suitability for your classes. Modify as appropriate.

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.

BUILDING VOCABULARY: transatlantic, plantation, arraignment, treaty, documentation, refute, symbolism, "right of salvage," "salvage on the high seas," "West Indies," "taking precedence," "creatures of prey," "executive branch," "judicial branch," "legislative branch," "independent judiciary." See also English Learner Movie Guide to "Amistad" from ESLnotes.com.

MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: For another film about Abolitionists, see Glory. For other films about the period, see the 1812 - 1860 and 1860 - 1865 sections of the United States History and Culture portion of the Subject Matter Index.


Discussion Questions:

After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

1. In 1839, the time of the Amistad incident until well into the Civil War, most people in the U.S. either supported slavery or were willing to tolerate its existence. Can you explain this? Suggested Response: Many in the North correctly feared that insisting on an end to slavery would lead the South to secede and cause the country to split in two or to suffer a civil war. The U.S. was the longest-lived democratic country in the world at the time. If it could not hold itself together, the cause of democracy would be set back for decades, if not longer. Many Americans simply didn't care about the fate of the blacks. Some people had a financial interest in trade with the South that they feared would be disrupted if slavery were abolished.

2. Why was the Amistad incident instrumental in changing attitudes of Northerners about slavery in the South? Suggested Response: The case illustrated vividly that there was no logical reason why a black person born in the U.S. should be a slave while a black person born in Africa should be free. This argument helped to convince many people that slavery could not be allowed to continue. Note, however, that the attitude of the majority did not change overnight. It took many years and heavy losses in the Civil War to convince most Northerners that slavery in the South should be abolished.

3. Which of the scenes in the film most clearly reveals the immoral and dehumanizing aspect of slavery? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. As long as the scenes mentioned are vivid and the reasons well supported, there can be no wrong answers.

For eighteen additional discussion questions, click here.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1. The Courts of the United States, North and South, were complicit in the crimes of slavery. They often denied that slaves were human beings who had the same rights as others. They recognized the property rights of slave owners. This in fact was the law of the United States at the time of the Amistad case. Just eighty years later, the United States and its allies put jurists from Nazi Germany in prison for enforcing laws that denied the humanity of Jews and the handicapped. Write an essay evaluating how the Courts of the United States, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, would fare if they were held to the standards to which the Allies held the German courts after the Second World War. [Teachers, for background see Learning Guide to Judgment at Nuremberg.]

2. Research the existence of slavery in today's world and write an investigative report that includes information on the international slave trade, where the slaves are found, how they are transported and into which countries they are sold as well as the kind of work into which they are forced. [Teachers: For background on the international slave trade, see TWM's Slavery: A World-Wide View, Then and Now.

3. Research some of the largely unsung heroes who devoted time, energy, and often their lives to the cause of abolition. Prepare and deliver a power point presentation to the class on your findings.

For additional assignments, click here.


Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Are you concerned that time will be wasted if you are absent from class? Worry no more  .  .  .   Check out TeachWithMovies' Set-Up-the-Sub.

Parenting Points: This film may be shown in your child's history class when the period of slavery is studied; but if not, it is a fine film to suggest that your child watch in order to become more viscerally aware of the history of slavery in the U.S.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

This Learning Guide written by James Frieden with assistance from Mary RedClay in formulating the assignments and discussion questions. It was last updated on August 25, 2012.

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