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.
|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.
"This is the movie I always wanted to make," she says. "It's the way I always
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
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
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
"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
"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
On this point, not surprisingly, Allen disagrees.
"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
|Allen says Freeman's character is symbolic of the many free, educated and
wealthy blacks in the 1800s.
"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."