In 1839, a mutiny occurred on a Spanish slave ship sailing off the coast of Cuba. A group of Africans illegally captured and sold into slavery took over the ship from its crew. The mutineers ordered the crew to return them to Africa, but the crew sailed north instead of east. Eventually, the ship was captured by a United States Revenue cutter off the coast of Long Island, and the ship and the people on it came under the jurisdiction of United States law. The name of the ship was La Amistad—which translates to The Friendship. An ironic name indeed.
Lawsuits arose over the disposition of the mutineers. The Spanish “owners,” abetted by their government—and supported by the United States government—argued for the return of their “property.” The mutineers, supported by the rising abolitionist movement in a United States where slavery was still legal (and where the Civil War was twenty years in the future) asserted their claim to freedom. The case eventually ended up at the United States Supreme Court, which decided the issue in favor of the mutineers in United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (1840).
In 1997, Stephen Spielberg brought this story to the screen, in a powerful and dramatic (but somewhat fictionalized and historically inaccurate) film, Amistad. The film starred Matthew McConaughey as Roger Baldwin, lawyer for the mutineers, Anthony Hopkins as former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Best Supporting Actor nomination) and Djimon Hounsou as Cinqué, leader of the mutineers. The film is intended to be a paean to American ideals of justice and freedom—and on that front, it succeeds brilliantly.
While McConaughey’s Baldwin and Hounsou’s Cinqué are the central protagonists, to my mind the most compelling character in the film is Hopkins’s Adams, former president, son of a former president, and, at the time of these events, a sitting member of Congress. Adams is initially either withdrawn from or indifferent to the issues raised by the plight of the mutineers, but he would eventually argue their case before the Supreme Court. That oral argument is the centerpiece of the film, invoking as it does concepts of freedom and justice and the Declaration of Independence, and hinting at the Civil War to come. (Note that some of these references were indeed made by Adams in his actual argument but some were not, including the Civil War hint. Also note that at the actual oral argument Adams spoke for eight hours!)
The Supreme Court’s opinion was handed down by Justice Joseph Story (portrayed in the movie by retired United States Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, author of Roe v. Wade). It’s interesting to note that in today’s legal world, a Supreme Court opinion usually comes out many months after oral argument is concluded; the opinion in The Amistad was issued one week after arguments finished.
The opinion in The Amistad can be seen as either an aberration (after all, Dred Scott was still to come in 1857) or a precursor of cases such as Brown v. Board. But Amistad, the film, deserves consideration in its own right. As lawyers and judges, we can admire and appreciate excellent appellate advocacy. And we can ignore historical inaccuracies here to focus on the larger issues the film emphasizes: freedom, justice, and the rule of law. Those concepts are always worth remembering—and fighting for.