Liberty or Licence?

Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster Amistad claims to educate as well as entertain; but how accurate is his portrayal of this slave revolt? John Thornton looks at the facts behind the film.

A historian who evaluates historical film has to accept that directors need some liberty to change the details to fit dramatic requirements, so long as the big picture is right. Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad makes a special effort to present itself as an accurate historical drama, so much so that his related production company sent out no less than 18,000 brochures to educators across the United States, suggesting ways to integrate the film into classes. In doing this, Spielberg makes a powerful statement about his veracity, and it must be said that on the whole he succeeds, once one makes the allowance for dramatic licence.

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