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A Commentary by Brother Frank

Since I didn't expect much of "The Amistad", I can't say I was disappointed by it. but I also must say that I wasn't pleasantly surprised by anything in it either. It was one of the most boring films I've seen in a while. And the brother I heard snoring in the theater must agree...

If that were ALL it were, I'd be happy. But this film was worse than boring to me. It was also historically manipulative and irresponsible.

Spielberg starts the film with the rebellion aboard La Amistad. This, in and of itself, is a blatant act of sabotage, because by doing this, he decapitates the dramatic build-up to, and justification for, the Africans' rebellion. He removes the audiences' identification with WHY the African's are doing what they're doing. Many of us already know on an intellectual level, but on the _emotional_ level [the level on which film is most effective] the connection was not allowed to be made. From the start, the film is setup to be anti-climactic.

This emotional build-up is something he did quite well in "The Color Purple" and "Schindler's List". [And I'm no fan of "The Color Purple"...] I have a hard time seeing him start Schindler's List with the final climactic scenes. What he did with the opening of "The Amistad" is like opening "Star Wars" with the attack on the Death Star, and telling the rest of the story in flashbacks.

Sengbe was also shot in extreme close-up and in lighting that gave him almost a monstrous appearance. The way he was photographed brought to mind the creature in "Alien". This non-human theme or sense was also put on Sengbe/Cinque by them having him make these strange guttural and animalistic sounds at different points in the film, such as when he was trying to pry the nail loose on the ship, and in the courtroom later on, just before he starts shouting [and spitting] "Gives us free! Gives us free! Gives us free! Gives us free! Gives us free!" after convulsing in a way that made me expect to see an Alien burst from his chest....

After the graphic [and unexplained] rebellion, the older Enslaver that they have in their possession remains very defiant and IN CONTROL on a certain level. Now this man has seen these brothers graphically kill a few of his comrades, and yet he still talks to them very aggressively, even with their weapons held on him. At the end of a bilingual "argument" he has with Sengbe, the Spaniard gets the last word, and Sengbe walks away.

This is an age-old power dynamic that sends the message that no matter how much this Black man THINKS he might be in control, he can never have control over the "brave" WHITE MAN. [You'll see this "last word" power dynamic played out all over the mass-media. Particularly in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", as well as in real life.]

In the movie, the disposition of Sengbe and the other Africans seem like those of desperate animals, rather than those of alert human beings fighting for their freedom, which is what the REAL Amistad heroes and "sheroes" were. In the film, they looked almost insane, in stark contrast to the heroic and focused whites we've seen in numerous war prison/concentration camp escape films over the past several decades.

While attempting to sail back to Africa, the Africans often run around the ship in wild erratic patterns, underscoring this "animalistic" undertone Spielberg gave them. If one did not know better, one would think they were completely unfamiliar with being on sailing vessels of any kind. It almost seemed as though they were instructed to mimic the actions of agitated monkeys, rather than African human beings. At one point, they do show Sengbe trying to correct the course that the deceptive Spaniards have set, but the film gives NO indication that the Africans in real life had indeed set the CORRECT course during the day, and the Spaniards diverted the ship's course at night. They don't even have anyone share this fact with us in the film later on. This would have been another example of the Africans' intelligence and humanity. Instead, they once again are merely shown as _completely_ duped and out-smarted.

Morgan Freeman's FICTIONAL character [Theodore Joadson] seems to be helpless and out of place most of the time. At one point, his white fellow-abolitionist [Tappan] gets the last word in a heated argument with him, shooting him a line that bordered on a threat. Joadson shuts his mouth and goes on his way.

Matthew McConaughey [Baldwin] returns to the big screen again, right out of "A Time To Kill", to reprise is role as "The Great White Savior" of Black folks. Ultimately and PREDICTABLY, the film focuses on him and his struggle, rather than focusing on the lives of Sengbe and the other Africans; the horrors they encountered in the slave dungeons; and their heroic escape.

During the trial, Baldwin drags an African from his seat by his chain, and uses it as a LEASH to drag the brother to the courtroom floor, like a DOG. He then "cleverly" tricks the simple-minded brother to grin, thereby exposing his sharply filed and pointed teeth. Aside from the portrayal of the brother as simple, the display of his teeth without any cultural explanation as to WHY they are pointed leaves the audience with yet another sight of something "wild" about Africans, completely out of context.

Spielberg craftily does this frequently in the film, by often not showing subtitles for what the Africans are saying, thereby distancing us from them emotionally. Or at the least, losing yet another opportunity to relate to them even more. One of these times is when Sengbe flies into a rage upon hearing that the case must be tried again, and he and the other Africans start chanting and singing something. What were they saying? Why not subtitle it? We're left to wonder, and simply see it as something wild and angry.

One of the times Spielberg DOES choose to subtitle the Africans is when they are being walked from the jail to the courthouse, and one of them tries to speak to an Elder brother who is driving a carriage. When the brother does not react to them, one of them is confused by this, and they decided that the brother is not an Elder, and not their brother. Their conclusion: "He is a white man." This is clearly set up to yet again promote the Divide & Conquer view that Africans do not like or identify with Africans in America.

We also see Spielberg's distancing of the Amistad Africans from other Africans the first time Sengbe meets James Covey, the Mende sailor who served as translator for Sengbe and the others during and after the trial. Sengbe is in a strange land, in the custody of whites whose language he does not know, and he's struggling to communicate with them. When Baldwin introduces Covey to him, Sengbe barely moves or reacts. Even after Covey greets him in their mother language, he still almost ignores Covey! This is absurd. I can only imagine Sengbe jumping for joy to see another brother from the homeland, ESPECIALLY since he could speak the language, and tell these strange people their side of the story! But that too was amputated by DreamWorks, because they had no intention of showing a strong bond between these brothers, and between continental and American Africans.

Throughout the trial, we keep seeing these white missionaries, and their "concern" for the Africans, yet we never see the Africans of America up close, and how they felt emotionally connected to the people of La Amistad. Black people kept a very close eye on the case, just as we did on the Rodney King and OJ Simpson trials. But to show this, once again, would have acknowledged and encouraged the bond between Africans throughout the Diaspora.

In flashback scenes, we are shown Africans enslaving Africans. Sengbe is captured by a group of brothers, who are shown prominently. We are also shown Africans with guns being involved in herding captive Africans. The camera is more focused on them, than on the whites in the background. This is meant to emphasize the role of Africans in the enslavement process, and diminish that of the European.

In a VERY slick cinematic move during the trial, Spielberg has the antagonistic prosecuting attorney ask Sengbe if slavery has existed in Africa for centuries, and if there are indeed slaves under his control. Spielberg focuses DRAMATICALLY on Sengbe's GUILTY replies "yes", to each condemning question! But in a smooooooth move, he has the translator James Covey emotionally protest that for the Mende word "slave" or more like "worker". But the important thing here is that Spielberg DIVERTS THE AUDIENCE'S ATTENTION away from Covey in this moment, thereby giving Sengbe's reluctant reply far more weight than Covey's very important clarification! This scene is central to the overall lobotomizing nature of this film. It parallel's the overall mood/agenda of exonerating whites for the nightmarish crime of Enslavement.

Later on in the trial, they even have the nerve to set up a British naval officer as a noble and "outraged" heroic figure who is seethingly angry about numerous Africans being dumped into the sea. At the end of the movie, Spielberg even makes a point to show white soldiers freeing Africans from the slave dungeons. He even shows this British naval officer destroying the dungeon with his ships' cannons!

I cannot claim this never happened, because I do not have that information. However, it is telling and interesting that a point was made to show THAT, but not show what HELLISH things went on IN the dungeons, also at the hands of whites. They also chose to leave out one of the major events that lead to the Africans choosing to make their move aboard the Amistad.

At one point, on La Amistad, the cook is said to have taunted the chained Africans, indicating to them that he was going to cook THEM, and that the crew of the ship was going to EAT them. It is said that after this, the Africans escaped! Why leave that out? After what Sengbe and the others had seen at the dungeon, I would imagine that it would be easy to imagine that these beastly people would try to eat them. But I guess DreamWorks just couldn't "stomach" the idea of having cannibalism associated with whites...

There are some who have very thoroughly dealt with the whole issue of the use of the Bible in this film, or more accurately, the use of images of a white Jesus. It is used in the film the very same way it was used against African people.

In one of the most outrageous moments in the film, we see one of the Africans explaining the Bible to Sengbe, because he has figured out the story by looking at the pictures. All of the drawings in the Bible he has shows the people as being European. Of course they show Christ as a white man, and with almost WHITE blond hair. As the African warrior shows the pictures to Sengbe, he explains to him that the white people in the pictures "have suffered more than we have"! This is outrageous! This reinforces the lie that Slavery wasn't all that bad, compared to other holocausts... and white people have been through worse things than what our Ancestors went through.

This may as well have been an anti-reparations film. [hmmmm...]

Another interesting thing is that the brother who says that whites have suffered more than Africans have is very aggressive at the beginning of the film. Wild and irrational. On La Amistad, he was wildly yelling at Sengbe, and looking almost nuts. While in jail, he tells Matthew McConaughey [Baldwin] that he could kill him with his bare hands. [One of many idle (impotent?) threats the brothers make in the film...] The first time we see this brother at peace, and acting human, is when he's looking at the images of the white folks... in the Bible.

Spielberg makes sure to have this fake and forced emotional bonding between Sengbe and Baldwin [who in real life was an aristocrat, and not working-class struggling altruistic attorney]. But no such bonding or brotherhood was shown between Sengbe and James Covey. When Sengbe finally meets John Quincy Adams, Spielberg has him look at Adams with such a sense of awe and affection, its sickening. While at the same time, Sengbe almost looks upon the Black [and fictional] Joadson with looks bordering on pity or contempt. These looks are ambiguous enough to at least be debatable. But his gazes upon Adams are quite clear. They are undoubtedly positive and approving. And we, the audience, are meant to see through the eyes of Sengbe....

Another repulsive scene is the one in which Adams is giving his lofty summation before the Supreme Court, which Spielberg coats in thick manipulative layers of syrupy music. Adams tells the judges about Sengbe's regard for The Ancestors, and then invokes his own SO-CALLED ancestors. As he does this, he walks along a line of busts of the "founding fathers" reverently. Included in this pack of demons are slave-holders George Washington and THOMAS JEFFERSON! And he insults the deeply spiritual concept of "Ancestors" by referring to THEM as such??? To top it all off, the busts of these creatures are STARK WHITE. Not real subtle.

Spielberg's coupe-de-grace is to end the film with a crying Sengbe, as the caption tells of the tragic fate of his family in Sierra Leone. I was instantly reminded of the helpless and crying Native American in a tv commercial from the 1970's. It's fine for men to cry, but this somber ending underscores the movie's theme of "helpless" Africans, rather than triumphant ones who won their freedom.

I usually sit through the credits of a film, to sit and reflect on the film for a bit. When this movie ended, I practically RAN for the door. I didn't even check to see if the brother I heard snoring woke up or not....

I can't recall feeling so unmoved by a film. And Steven made exactly the kind of film he set out to make: One that diminishes white "guilt" over the enslavement and slaughter of our Ancestors; points fingers at Africans, saying, "You people enslaved EACH OTHER"; shows Africans as animalistic and virtually without a culture; and presents us yet again as helpless Negroes, rescued and/or "freed" by those "friends" who enslaved us.

By the way... It is also interesting that the poignant irony of the name "La Amistad" is never dealt with in the film. It means "Friendship".

If you haven't seen this trash yet, but intend to, wait for it to come out on video, and then form a film study group of about 5-20 people, and rent it one night and watch it together, thereby giving them as little money on rentals as possible. I only went to see it, so that I could write this warning against it. For those of you who enjoyed it, just try to consider some of the things mentioned above, and think them over.

Meanwhile, see "Sankofa" instead, or attend an African film festival.

Red,Black, and Green … Setting the Record Straight
Recently the U.S. Postal Service issued the KWANZAA stamp in recognition of the festival created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University—Long Beach. The colorful KWANZAA stamp depicts a family of African descent and symbols associated with the celebration.

Also included in the stamp is a broad three-striped "Black, Red, and Green" flag. Since the KWANZAA stamps purports to symbolize the pride and heritage of African Americans, postal customers might assume the flag represents the unofficially dubbed "Black Pride Flag."

However, the flag Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) introduced at the First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World held in August 1920 in New York City was "RED, BLACK, AND GREEN."

Over 25,000 people packed the opening session of the convention that was held at Madison Square Garden. Delegates came from all over the world. At the flag’s introduction Garvey stated each color of the flag had a specific meaning: red—"the color of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty"; black—"the color of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong"; and green—"the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland."

During the Black Power Movement of the 1960’s the Red, Black, and Green flag made a comeback and appeared frequently as a symbol of pride. Many persons not knowing the history of the flag mistakenly thought the flag had been created in the 1960’s. Some might say the colors of a flag and/or even the existence of a specific flag for a race of people is a non-issue.

Author Tony Martin states in Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the U.N.I.A.: "the lack of an African symbol of nationhood seems to have been the cause for crude derision on the part of whites and a source of sensitivity on the part of Afro-Americans. White derision over the deficiency was summed up in a popular American song, "Every Race Has a Flag But the ‘Coon’." This song spurred Garvey to create the RED, BLACK, AND GREEN flag.

Reportedly Dr. Maulana Karenga served as a consultant to the U.S. Postal Service for the KWANZAA stamp and Synthia Saint James, an African-American, was the artist. As African-Americans our history as told by others has been one of omission and distortion, must we now as African-Americans also add to the historical confusion with this KWANZAA stamp!!

Sharon Sanders Brooks,
President, Basic Black Historical Consulting Service
Kansas City, Missouri

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