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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > February 2017 > Reel Story: Amistad

Reel Story: Amistad

The gripping story of the slave mutiny comes vividly to life in Spielberg’s critically acclaimed historical drama, writes Alice Barnes-Brown


In a moving courtroom scene, heavily praised by critics, the chained Sengbe Pieh arises from his seat in the defendant’s box and speaks his first lines in English. Knowing only Mende, he bravely begins a chant which both surprises, softens and scares the rest of the court.

Darkness envelops the screen. Slowly, a small light illuminates the scene, revealing the frantic struggle of Sengbe Pieh (Djimon Hounsou), an African taken prisoner on the slave ship La Amistad. Using a nail to pick the lock on his chains, the man frees the rest of his people and they swarm onto the deck armed with knives, the rain falling down around them. Chaos erupts. In pure rage, the rebel leader plunges his weapon into the heart of the Spanish captain, bellowing as he looms over the bleeding body of his captor.

This is Spielberg’s brutal depiction of the La Amistad mutiny of 1839. Fifty-three Mende tribesmen and women (originally from Sierra Leone) were being transported for sale as slaves from one end of Cuba, then a Spanish colony, to the other. They bravely rose up and took the ship for themselves, aiming to return home again. But who were these people, and how did they end up thousands of miles away from Africa?

This portrait of Pieh in 1840 was painted when he was about 25 years old, at the height of the scandal. It was commissioned by a black abolitionist, and shows Sengbe in the traditional Mende clothing he would have worn at home.
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February 2017