Silence and Communication in Amistad

Amistad is a film in which the themes of communication, language, translation, and silence function at the forefront of understanding. This is first evident in Spielberg’s choice not to subtitle the first 15 minutes of the film.  The audience hears a foreign language, Mende, from Sierra Leone but can not understand it, thus establishing the void of communication that will continue throughout the film.  The barrier of communication continues into the trials, making the slaves difficult to defend unless they can find a way to communicate.  This comes in the obvious form of a translator.  In addition, translation is also present in more subtle ways in other aspects of the film such as its cinematic techniques.  Spielberg’s choice to translate meaning both in flashback and in storytelling allows the audience to know/understand more than the characters in the film.

The following shots depict defining moments of communication throughout the film:

38:31 - The useless translator

38:31 - The useless translator

48:08 - Cinque and Baldwin try to communicate (they unknowingly understand eachother)

48:08 - Cinque and Baldwin try to communicate (they unknowingly understand each other)

1:06:25 - Breakthrough when they find a real translator

1:06:25 - Breakthrough when they find a real translator

1:28:03 - Questioning Communication "the translator is answering for the witness"

1:28:03 - Questioning Communication "the translator is answering for the witness"

1:34:21 - GIVE US FREE!!

1:34:21 - GIVE US FREE!!

Eventually communication succeeds in that the slaves are freed. But, the true level of understanding that is reached in the film goes beyond words and thus visual techniques ultimately dominate.  In addition, silence is often used extremely effectively to portray the ideas and feelings that words can not.  As Cinque’s thoughts fill his head during the courtroom scene (1:34:21), almost all the sound is drowned out and we just hear his breathing.  So much of the knowing that the audience takes for granted in the film is never fully understood by the characters actually in it.  I do not know if this is a flaw of the film, but certainly something to question.

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One Response

  1. The issue of communication is of particular importance because the film does not actually wrestle with the actual issues of slavery & human rights- much like the actual court case which ruled in favor of the Mende because of a jurisdiction issue. The whole idea of if-people-just-understood-one-another-they-would-get-along sidesteps the real problem of slavery (in America & around the world).

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