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Gambit Weekly "Amistad"

By Dion M. Harris

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  All Debbie Allen had to do was get Steven Spielberg in a room, sit him down and make him listen. She got her chance three years ago during a 25-minute meeting on a December day in California.

"The fact that he was taking the meeting said he was already interested," Allen remembers. "I knew I had to be clear and use my time wisely."

The idea that Allen -- an actress and dancer best known for her role on TV's Fame -- pitched to Spielberg has materialized into a $40 million coup called Amistad, an epic film about the 1839 mutiny on a Spanish slave ship. Allen had tried to sell the idea to many other directors, including noted black filmmakers, ever since she learned about the controversial mutiny and researched it at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. After listening to Allen's spirited spiel and reading her original 1984 treatment of the true story, Spielberg agreed to entertain movie scripts for the project.

"Steven related to my passion," says Allen. "When you can paint a picture to someone in a way that they can feel it and see it, you will be persuasive. The meeting went on and on and on; I can say that there was a true meeting of the minds, hearts and souls."

Despite Spielberg's enthusiasm for the project, it was only when the right script came along (courtesy of David Franzoni, a man whose work on Amistad Allen calls "magnificent") did he commit to the project. He would direct and co-produce with Allen between his two other projects: last summer's Jurassic Park: The Lost World and the upcoming Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks.

"He was so passionate about doing it, he said, 'Better do it now or maybe never,'" says Allen. She jumped at the chance.

Production on Amistad was completed in a relatively short period of time for something of this scale, Allen says. Shooting took just three months, from February to May, and final edits, music and credits were completed just three weeks ago. Allen attributes the efficiency to "tremendous creativity, the brilliance of Steven Spielberg and a great team of people," and she says she's thrilled with the finished product.

"This is the movie I always wanted to make," she says. "It's the way I always envisioned it."

Amistad stars Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey and Djimon Hounsou as charismatic revolt leader Sengbe, or Cinque (five), as he was dubbed by his Portuguese captors. The picture will be released nationally on Dec. 12. There will be a Dec. 4 premiere gala in Washington, D.C., hosted by President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The first New Orleans screening is this Saturday (Dec. 5) at the State Palace Theatre, 1108 Canal St.

Debbie Allen (second from right) dreamed for 20 years about making Amistad, the story of 53 Africans who revolted against their captors in the summer of 1839.

For better or worse, much of the movie's pre-release publicity has come in the form of a lawsuit by writer Barbara Chase-Riboud, who contends Spielberg plagiarized a script she sent him some years ago for a movie based on the same story. DreamWorks SKG (Spielberg's studio) stands by its product, and Chase-Riboud will have her day in court on Dec. 15. Allen says the claim is without merit.

Allen points out that she started working on her own treatment of the Amistad story in 1978 and optioned the work in 1984 from author William Owens (Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad). Chase-Riboud, who now lives in Paris, copyrighted Echo of Lions, a historical novel that includes a telling of the Amistad incident, in 1988.

"I've just been allowed to read her book," says Allen. "I know what it's like to read something like this (about the Amistad mutiny) and consider it your own, but the story belongs to the world."

Clifton H. Johnson, founder of Tulane's Amistad Research Center, takes a harder stance.

Steven Spielberg, Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman discuss a scene.
"I don't know why this woman is doing this," says Johnson, a historian who was a consultant for the movie. "There's no basis in fact. This is a frivolous suit. I don't know how she can copyright history or any historical event. There is no truth to the similarity of characters in her book and this movie."

No doubt, other controversies may ignite over Amistad, a movie Johnson thinks will provoke the same sort of debate that Alex Haley's Roots did 20 years ago. In fact, some critics have already wondered aloud if the world needs another movie romanticizing the notion of a cocky, white lawyer coming to the aid of helpless blacks. Both Allen and Johnson say the question is unfair.

"I think people need to see the movie. From it, they will get a certain spirit from Sengbe. He really is the heartbeat of the story," says Allen. "Of course, there's the fact that the John Quincy Adams character needs to stay true to the history of the event. This is a wonderful dramatization of the relationship between Adams and Sengbe."

Allen points to Joadson (the "fact-tional" Morgan Freeman role) as an example of a strong character symbolic of the many free, educated and even wealthy blacks in America in the 1800s. And Johnson goes so far as to say that the movie's producers treat some of the white characters too unsympathetically.

On this point, not surprisingly, Allen disagrees.

Allen says Freeman's character is symbolic of the many free, educated and wealthy blacks in the 1800s.

"Clifton has a problem with one line," she says. The line comes when Lewis Tappan, one of the first white abolitionists to stand up and defend the captives, utters the line, "Maybe the Africans may need to serve us better in death than in life." Put in context, Tappan's observation followed a lower court decision that freed the Africans to return home to Sierra Leone, after which President Martin Van Buren appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"That does not make him evil. There was a chance the Africans would be sent back to Cuba and executed," says Allen, who deems Tappan "an honorable man."

"This is an artistic re-creation. None of us were there when the conversation was spoken. We (Johnson and I) agree to disagree.

"History needs to be taught as a debate." It needs to be looked at from different points of view, with more discipline. (In that way,) it would hold more interest for young people. There are many different things to argue about. No one man ... is all villain or all hero."

And no movie is all staid courtroom scenes, for that matter. Amistad, in fact, includes some pretty intense violence as it depicts the realities of the slave trade -- and a mutiny. The movie hasn't been rated, but Allen guesses it will probably earn an "R" for the graphic scenes at sea.

"The middle passage is a very dramatic and memorable part of the movie, but it's no worse than the [TV] news," Allen says with characteristic spunk. "High school and junior high school students should see it."

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