Rattling the Chains of History: Steven Spielberg's <i>Amistad</i> and ‘Telling Everyone's Story’

Trevor B. McCrisken and Andrew Pepper

in American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film

Published by Edinburgh University Press

Published in print February 2005 | ISBN: 9780748614899
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780748670666 | DOI:
Rattling the Chains of History: Steven Spielberg's Amistad and ‘Telling Everyone's Story’

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The release of Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) constitutes something of a new direction in Hollywood's attitude towards both slavery and its role as public historian. This chapter examines questions of audiences, film reception and the relationship between film and public pedagogy. It argues that a growing number of Hollywood filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to use historical films in order to critically engage with complicated questions about what constitutes ‘America’ domestically and internationally in the post-Cold War world. Amistad's effectiveness in reinscribing American hegemony is predicated not on any kind of heavy-handed, top-down racism, but precisely on its ability to preach and privilege tolerance, acceptance and cultural diversity. In doing so, the film implicitly speaks about the changed and changing nature of cultural and economic power and requires us to develop a new critical idiom to come to terms with concepts such as race, racism, national identity, and multiculturalism. The chapter also discusses the ‘plantation’ movie; the television mini-series Roots, first shown in the United States in January 1977; and public pedagogy versus historical authenticity.

Keywords: Amistad; Hollywood; slavery; public pedagogy; historical authenticity; historical films; racism; plantation movie; Roots; multiculturalism

Chapter.  10231 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies

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