Amistad Essay Topics and Ideas

Stephen Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad is an emotionally moving historical drama. It is based on the true story of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad which became an important figure in the abolition movement when there was a revolt by the slaves on the ship in 1839. It was captured by the United States near Long Island, and the subsequent case, in which the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the slaves had been illegally transported and freed them, became a landmark.

Here are some ideas you might consider when writing about Amistad:

  • One of the more interesting aspects of the film concerns the inability of the Africans and their abolitionist advocates to communicate with each other because of the language barrier. Steven Spielberg has often explored this theme in other films, such as Close Encounters (communication with aliens) and Saving Private Ryan (Americans and Germans).
  • The film portrays many real political figures that have had an important impact on American history, such as John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and John C. Calhoun. Look up some biographical information on these figures. Do you think they were portrayed accurately? How does the film want us to view the character of these men, and why? If the film takes liberties for dramatic purpose, what are the possible reasons for this in context?
  • How does the film connect the La Amistad case with larger themes and events in American history, such as the American Revolution and civil war? How does the film view American values generally?
  • How does the portrayal of Africans in the film compare with the portrayal of African Americans in Spielberg’s other films, such as The Color Purple?
  • The film depicts historical realities of slavery. What relevance does the film have in today’s political culture? Is the film trying to address any present-day political issues?
  • Amistad had been accused of some inaccuracies by professional historians. Do some research on the United States v. The Amistad case. How accurate is the film’s portrayal of this case? What does the film change? Does the film make changes for the sake of plot, theme, or some other artistic reason?
  • In Amistad, abolitionists are morally opposed to slavery, but have to work within what they view as an evil system. How this is similar to the story Spielberg tells in Schindler’s List?