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Amistad: Book and Movie Comparison

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When comparing the book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy and the movie Amistad, we can experience the advantages and disadvantages of each first hand. Both these mediums have strengths and weaknesses in different areas and the uniqueness of each medium can be seen when both have been experienced thoroughly. Although both mediums do an exceptional job in different areas, the film directed by Steven Spielberg seems to be severely lacking in detail, realism, and accuracy when explored on its own. The combination of the imagery and certain visual scenes from the movie should be used to amplify the detailed story told by the book instead of an independent source when analyzing the historical details. The medium should only be used as a means to complement and strengthen the understanding of the facts of the book, as it does not truly tell the full story.

In the scenes of the slave ship and the experiences of the Middle Passage, a strong wave of emotion is felt from the footage. The fear, torment, pain, and cruelty experienced by the slaves on the ship are truly felt when watching the scenes on the ship. We can see the horrible conditions and treatment the slaves are exposed to. Chained up and crammed together far worse than how livestock is treated and desperately begging for mushed up food rations. This scene gives much more insight and realism to the description set up in the book and creates compelling emotions to the real suffering experienced about slavery (Jones, 1987, p. 47).

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In another scene on the ship, we see a large bag of rocks is dropped into the sea, dragging and drowning several slaves. The fear and desperation of the slaves clinging onto anything possible to survive is an emotion that words alone can’t portray nearly well as the scene did. To top it off the slave captors would kick those who fought to survive into the water while they were chained, to end any fragment of hope they had to survive. This was a powerful depiction of how slaves were treated as lesser beings than other humans.

Lastly, another powerful scene to note is the prep and auctioning of the slaves when the ship finally docks in Cuba. Here we can really see a new perspective to how the book refers to the slaves becoming Spanish property once sold in the auctions (Jones, 1987, p. 47). The scene here demonstrates how the slaves were only viewed as mere goods and their value of life was as insignificant as property. The scene really depicts the trading system of the slaves and how their value as humans was completely disregarded. The slaves were treated like work animals and auctioned off by a system of pure greed and evil. A real business and profitability mentality was shown in this scene and it showed what the focus of the slave trade was all about. The book’s description of Cuban slave owners worrying about losing on profits (Jones, 1987, p. 19) doesn’t represent the money-driven greed as much as the visual depictions in the movie did. Although the book may touch on some of these topics, it never truly amplified the emotions and severity when compared to watching the actual scenes. Reading over 200 pages can get boring and generate a loss of interest. The gruesomeness and excellent acting give us a perspective on the topic that the book could not. The visuals create a strong emotional connection, interest, and historical appreciation that is very difficult to achieve with words alone.

When comparing the historical accuracy of the two mediums, it’s evident that Amistad is a Hollywood production and therefore not all of the content is entirely accurate. The mediums do share key milestones of these events such as the ship traveling the Middle Passage and the mutiny, however, events in the film are definitely inaccurate. Hollywood films are meant to entertain their viewers and instead of portraying all the historical facts, we will definitely see some make-belief story editing. This was one of the major flaws of the medium being that only parts of the movie can be viewed as accurate while the majority of the film’s content is questionable. This is extremely evident when dealing with the court processes and judicial system. The relationship between the court and slavery was very underplayed. What you would believe to be an extremely long, grueling, and tiring process was depicted as a one-man army solution. What I mean by this is related to the final scene when President Adams gives his speech. The majority of the time spent in the Supreme Court was focused on President Adams speaking. The film made it very bias in that it focused on Adams making a victory speech that resulted in the abolition of slavery when in reality this isn’t even close to the historical truth. The court process lasted much longer than depicted in the film and required way more effort than one man’s speech (Jones, 1987, p. 52-59). This takes away the meaningful collective efforts and milestones during the journey and focuses all the glory on a speech that caused questionable reactions in court.

Another example of inaccuracy in the film is seen with Joseph Cinque during the scene of his battle with the captain of the ship. In the film, there is a lot of focus around Cinque and it is evident that he is overly portrayed as the hero. Although he is the leader of the mutiny, he was not the sole influence of the cause of the mutiny and it did not revolve around him as portrayed in the film. We see a glorified Cinque and heroic portrayal when he kills the captain, stabbing him to death. Hollywood wanted to make it seem as though Cinque, the hero, has slain the evil captor and overcome a tiresome obstacle when in reality he only knocked the captain down in the book (Jones, 1987, p. 25). This is another inaccurate depiction of one man’s effort being overly impactful and taking away from the efforts of others and the time invested as a collective group.

In the book the detailed interactions and descriptiveness of the events allowed for historical accuracy. There wasn’t a need for movie magic and there isn’t any time constraint for a book as there is in a movie. The book is based on countless research, experts, records, and facts, not scripts, actors, and Steven Spielberg. The records and compiled data of experts in the field are reliable, telling the story as it was. Because the movie lacks the accurate detail that the book has it does take away from the historical portrayal. For example in the movie after the speech, it seemed like a happily ever after type of ending. This is a mere illusion as things were not so simplistic. The lack of detail and information takes away from the complexity of the issue, the amount of time of the struggle, and the full ripple impact on all parties involved. In the book, this issue was not completely resolved after the Supreme Court event. There were still uncertainties and as depicted in the book it was the war that abolished slavery, not a speech (Jones, 1987, p. 218).

Because of the time constraint in the movie, there are severe inaccuracies, lack of detail, and takeaway from the importance of many milestones. The entire abolition of slavery cannot be crammed nor taught from an unreliable 2-hour film and is a strong point in why using this medium as a foundation to educate students would be very flawed. Studying chapters and key events in the book is a far superior way of teaching history to students. Lots of time is needed to truly appreciate and understand the historical events and influences of this subject. To truly educate the students the process cannot be rushed nor studied from a time-limiting film filled with historical inaccuracies.

Due to what was just mentioned, if given the task of teaching about these historical events I would definitely utilize them detailed and vast amounts of information embedded in the book by Howard Jones. The book is much more resourceful, detailed, and accurate in comparison to the film. Its massive content better suits teaching the history curriculum to students, as it would be much easier to break down through chapters. The key events will have more detailed records and will allow students to invest more time in studying the content. This is solely basing the facts on if only one medium could be used to teach the students. As mentioned earlier the film does have its advantages, however, utilizing it as the main resource to educate students would be an inferior choice compared to utilizing the book. Teaching a course using a foundation with a lack of data, detail, and accuracy will only create gaps of knowledge on the topic for the students being taught the material.  

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