The Amistad had, as it happened, sailed right into the middle of a raging American struggle over slavery. Antislavery abolitionists took up the Africans' case, contending that they had been illegally kidnapped and, by mutinying, had merely exercised their right to self-defense. Against them stood President Martin Van Buren, determined to send the Africans back to sure death in Cuba.

While Amistad takes some liberties with the facts, it is mostly faithful in illumining this dramatic part of America's story. Most abolitionists were Christians, as Amistad plainly reveals, and wanted not only to free the Amistad captives but to tell them about Jesus Christ. One remarkable scene shows one of the Africans grasping the gospel story from looking at pictures in a Bible. Many of the Africans did, in fact, become Christians and went back to their native Africa with the intention of spreading the gospel.

Unfortunately, the man who did most to free the Amistad prisoners, Lewis Tappan, gets cursory treatment in the film. His most memorable scene is an invented conversation with a black abolitionist, in which Tappan suggests that it would be preferable for the blacks to be martyred than to be set free. The scene paints Tappan as something of a racist, a complaint nobody ever made about the real man.

Lewis Tappan had no use for the gingerly way most abolitionists treated black-white relations. He quarreled with evangelist Charles Finney over Finney's insistence that blacks occupy separate seating in his huge Broadway Tabernacle. Even interracial marriages did not bother Tappan in the least. "In a thousand years," he wrote Lyman Beecher, "probably all the inhabitants on this continent would be of one color, neither black nor white … ...

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