Plot: In 1839, a group of Africans sold into slavery were being transported to the United States on a Spanish ship. Off the coast of Cuba, they escaped from their shackles and attacked the crew, leaving two crew members alive to take them back to Africa. The Spanish sailors tricked the Africans and sailed up the coast of the United States until an American naval ship off the coast of Connecticut captures them. The Africans were brought into court to determine their fate. They were claimed as property (“like livestock”) by both the Spanish crew and by the American captors.
Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey), a property lawyer persuades abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd) that he has a theory that will help the Africans. He argues that it is not a property case at all. The law provides that only the child of slaves can be a slave. Since the Africans were not born slaves they are free, and their actions were merely self-defense in aid of restoring their freedom. If Baldwin can prove that they were born as free people in Africa, and not, as their captors alleged, slaves in the West Indies, they would not be considered property; they would be considered human beings.
The trial attracts the attention of President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), who is in the midst of a campaign for re-election and very aware that he will need the support of Southern voters to win. He is under additional pressure from the eleven-year-old queen of Spain, Isabella II, and her ambassador, who raise claims on behalf of the Spanish fleet. When the judge and jury appear sympathetic to the Africans, Van Buren arranges for a new judge to hear the case without a jury.
Meanwhile, the Africans try to understand what is going on around them. Baldwin and Joadson are able to find a man who speaks Mende, the language of CinquÃ© (Djimon Hounsou) and some of the other Africans. They win in court and the government appeals. Former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) represents them before the U.S. Supreme Court, where seven of the nine Justices are slaveholders. In a moving and eloquent argument, he persuades the Justices (with one dissenter) that the Africans were free, and that if they had been white, they would have been called heroes for rebelling against those who tried to take that freedom away.
Discussion: Adams explains that in court the one with the best story wins. Indeed, we hear many different stories in the course of the movie as each character tries to explain why his view is the right one. In the first courtroom scene we hear several different “stories” about what should happen to the Africans. All of those stories assume that the Africans are property; the only question is whose property they are. Interestingly, as “property,” they can not be charged with murder or theft. One cannot be both property and capable of forming criminal intent. The only issue before the court is where the Africans will go.
As Baldwin begins to tell Joadson and Tappan his “story” of the case, we see them slowly becoming aware of what had always been obvious to us. The Africans cannot be property. They were free, in which case their actions were not only honorable but heroic, in the same category as America’s founding fathers, our own “story” about who we are as Americans. Despite the attempts of Van Buren to subvert the legal system established just decades before, the essential commitment to freedom is so much a part of the story that, at least in this one brief moment, justice triumphed. Adams, the son of the second President, made that his story.
Questions for Kids:
Â· Why was it important to prove where the Africans were from?
Â· What was Calhoun’s justification for slavery?
Â· Why does Tappan say that the death of the Africans may help the cause of abolition more than their freedom?
Â· Why does Spielberg organize his story this way, taking the audience from the confrontation to the courtroom and only later providing the background about the capture of the Africans?
Â· What does it mean that there is no Mende word for “should”?
Connections: Chief Justice Storey is portrayed by real-life former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.