Nineteenth century Abolitionist lawyers work to free a group of Africans who have been charged with murder for rebelling against their slave-trading captors. Based on a true story. [Dir: Steven Spielberg/ Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou/ 165 min/ Drama/ Anti-Slavery]
In 1808 Congress passed legislation making it illegal to bring new slaves into the U.S. from Africa. So when, in 1839, a boatload of Africans of unknown origin washed up on the coast of New England with a murdered crew, whom the Africans had apparently rebelled against and killed, the question of how the Africans were to be treated depended on their point of origin.
If they had come directly from Africa, then they were free African men (who had legitimately defended themselves against illegal kidnapping). If they were from America, then they were slaves (who had killed their owners). It was eventually proven that they had been transported directly from Africa and were therefore free according to U.S. law. However, powerful pro-slavery interests nonetheless opposed their release and fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Abolitionist attorneys joined the slavers in a pitched legal battle, and that battle is the focus of this film.
This is a great example of the importance of individual action in making liberty a reality. It’s inspiring to see at work the legal heroes who fight the good fight. At another level, the film is also a plug for the separation of powers. At one point the Spanish queen (who wants Spanish property claims on the Africans enforced) sends a letter complaining of the “independence” of American courts, and the viewer is reminded that dispersion of political power is one of the checks on its arbitrary usage.
Also in the plus column here are two particular points with regard to the telling of the history of slavery. First, unlike many other films on the subject of slavery, this one does not degenerate into a guilt-ridden “all white people are bad” scenario. In this film, as in real life, there are good and bad white people, good and bad black people. Second, this is the first film I have ever seen that gives the British their proper credit for ending the slave trade on a world scale. The fact that, after Britain banned slavery, the Royal Navy went out of its way to destroy slave-trading centers along the African coast is almost unknown today, but those deeds play a small part here.
As entertainment, it’s not as awesome as one might expect given director Speilberg’s record, but it’s certainly above average. It’s largely a courtroom drama, sympathetically told and backed by an effective John Williams musical score. On the downside, it could have been a bit shorter than its two-and-a-half hours, and there are times when the telling seems slightly theatrical; but these are minor flaws. As the proper inheritors of the Abolitionist tradition—nowadays opposing slavery in all its manifestations and degrees—libertarians will find this an inspiring historical drama. Sensitive viewers should be aware, however, that there are some violent scenes, as might be expected of a film on such a subject.