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Steven Spielberg's American Trilogy

Three Movies by Steven Spielberg That Define the American Ideal

AMISTAD (1997) – An Independent Judiciary

LINCOLN (2012) – Democracy

THE POST (2017) – A Free Press

Whether or not Steven Spielberg planned it this way, or that it was merely a happy coincidence, the above three movies, while about three very different stories in American history, illustrate three pillars that uphold our republic–and guarantee our freedom–an independent judiciary, democracy, and a free press.

AMISTAD (1997) – An Independent Judiciary

Set in 1839, the movie derives its title from Le Amistad, a French slave ship. As the movie begins, 39 African captives aboard Le Amistad, overcome their captors, take possession of the ship and, hoping to return to their home in Sierra Leone, end up being captured off the coast of Massachusetts.

To whom do they belong? Spain claims ownership, as do the American salvage hunters who ushered the ship into the port of Boston. To resolve the question, the issue is brought before a federal court. A Boston abolitionist's society, seeking to free the Africans, hires attorney Roger Baldwin to argue their case. The prosecution is represented by attorneys for President Martin van Buren. Based on a treaty with Spain, the president's attorneys argue that the Africans are slaves and "the property" of the Spanish government. The verdict hinges on a simple question: where were they born? If they were born in Cuba, as the prosecution claims, then they are slaves, and must be turned over to Spanish custody. If they were born in Africa, as the defense claims, then they were born free, and must be released.

After demonstrating to the court that the African captives understand not a word of Spanish, Baldwin argues that the Africans were not born in Cuba, as the prosecution claims, but in Africa. To further solidify his argument, Baldwin finds documents hidden aboard Le Amistad that proves the African were initially "cargo" belonging to a Portuguese slave ship, the Tecora. Therefore, the Africans were freeborn in Africa, and not as slaves. However, before the presiding judge can render a verdict, at the direction of the Van Buren Administration, he is replaced by Federal Judge Coglin, who is younger and impressionable, and believed to favor the wishes of President Van Buren.

Fearing the new judge may rule against them, Baldwin seeks advice from former president John Quincy Adams. Adams, a savvy attorney and life-long abolitionist, tells Baldwin to dig deeper into the African's story. Baldwin finds a former slave from Sierra Leone, named James Covey, who speaks both English and Mende, the African's native language.

At trial, speaking through James Covey, Cinqué (the African's charismatic leader) confirms that he and the others were captured in Sierra Leone, and sold to the slave ship Tecora, where they were beaten and held in the brig of the ship. Later, the ship docked in Havana, Cuba. Those captives not sold at auction, were then handed over to another slave ship, Le Amistad, bound for a slave market in the southern United States.

After a night's deliberation, Judge Coglin rules in favor of the defense–the prisoners were freeborn in Africa, and are therefore must be set free. Meanwhile, at a White House dinner, Van Buren is warned by Senator John Calhoun of South Caroline, that if the Amistad Africans are set free, Civil War will break out. As a consequence, Van Buren appeals Coglin's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Baldwin then asks John Quincy Adams to step in and argue the case. After meeting with Cinqué, Adams agrees.

Speaking before a Supreme Court comprised mostly of Southern slave owners, Adams makes his case on two points. One, is the importance of America's independent courts. Indeed, one of Queen Isabella's biggest complaints in her attempt to regain the African captives, is that U.S. courts are "incompetent". Says Adams: "What her majesty wants is a court that behaves just like her courts, (he chuckles) the courts of an eleven-year-old girl to play with in her magical kingdom called Spain. A court that does what it is told to do, (he chuckles again) a court that can be toyed with like a doll, a court, as it happens, of which our own President Van Buren would be most be proud. . . ."

The other issue is man's inalienable right to freedom, as stated in America's founding document, the Declaration of Independence. Reading from an article published by the Van Buren White House, Adams quotes Senator Calhoun as saying that slavery has always been a part of the natural state of man, dating back to Biblical times, and therefore, "is neither sinful nor immoral." Adams counters: "This may be controversial, but I believe the natural state of man is freedom . . . is freedom, and the proof is the length to which a man, woman or child will go to regain it. Once taken, he will break loose from his chains, decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try, against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home."

He asks Cinqué to stand up. "This man is black. We can all see that. But can we also see as easily that which is equally true? That he is the only true hero in this room. Now, if he were white he wouldn't be standing before the court, fighting for his life. If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn't be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would written about him. The great authors of our times would fill books about him. His story would be told and retold in our classrooms. Our children, because we would make sure of it, would know his name as well as they know Patrick Henry's. . . ."

In a near-unanimous decision (with one dissent), the Court rules in favor of the defense: the captives of Le Amistad, being freeborn in Africa, are to be set free.

LINCOLN (2012) – Democracy

The movie is about the final four months of Lincoln's presidency, when he ushered the 13th Amendment through Congress outlawing slavery, and ended the Civil War. Prior to Lees' surrender to Grant at Appomattox (that stopped the fighting), Lincoln meets with various "peace commissioners" from Richmond, to negotiate peace.

One of the commissioners is Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who, while holding out for the South's right to retain slavery, balks at Lincoln's peace overture.

"How have you held your union together? Through democracy? How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration? Your union is bonded in cannon fire and death."

"It may be you're right," Lincoln replies. "But, say all we done is show the world that democracy isn't chaos, that there is a great, invisible strength in a people's union; say we've shown that people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere. Mightn't that say at least that the idea of democracy is worth aspiring to, eventually to become worthy of? At all rates whatever may be proved by blood and sacrifice might have been proved by now. Shall we stop this bloodshed?"

THE POST (2017) – A Free Press

The Washington Post has obtained a copy of a classified government document–a study of the Vietnam War, known as "The Pentagon Papers". Commissioned by Secretary of War Robert McNamara, the study clearly shows that the United States government has consistently lied about its handling of the Vietnam War. The New York Times has received a copy too, and had been publishing their analysis of the Papers in installments, until issued an injunction to stop by a federal court, at the insistence of the Nixon White House.

If the Post publishes its analysis of the Papers, it risks being in contempt of court, and the Post's owner, and editor-in-chief, being indicted, and possibly sentenced to several years in federal prison.

After a long deliberation with the Post's attorneys, owner Katherine Graham, decides to publish their analysis of the Pentagon Papers. The morning their first installment appears on newsstands, they are issued an injunction to stop by a federal court. They appeal, and a week later their appeal (and that of the New York Times) is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. As both newspapers see it, the First Amendment right of a Free Press is at stake.

In a six-to-three decision, the court agrees, and rules in favor of both newspapers' right to publish the Pentagon Papers. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who wrote the Court's majority opinion, said: "Any system of prior restraint of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity . . . The Government thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint. . . . The District Court for the Southern District of New York in the New York Times case, and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the Washington Post case, held that the Government had not met that burden. We agree."

In a separate and concurring opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "Paramount among the responsibilities of a free pass is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.

"In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times and the Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw clearly. In revealing the workings of Government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do."

Further on he wrote: "The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

- END -

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