Amistad’s journey only guides race talks

(U-WIRE) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For the moviegoer, the holiday season has nothing to do with family, goodwill, peace on earth or any other Hallmark sentiment. It is about long lines, $10 buckets of stale popcorn and a violent hatred for crying babies.
This year, newborns were not the only theater patrons unable to control their emotions. The cinema was brimming with two particularly heart-wrenching tales, the three-hour tragedy “Titanic” and the historical drama “Amistad.”
I won’t worry about “Titanic,” an admittedly moving film about puppy love on a sinking ship. Short of bankrupting Carnival Cruise Lines, there is not much threat of societal impact.
The case of “Amistad” is far more troubling. Lest anyone forget, President Clinton has called for a national dialogue on race, and Steven Spielberg’s retelling of a 19th-century slave ship rebellion looks as if it may be embraced as the vehicle for bringing that dialogue to the wider public.
Beginning with Newsweek, the media has met the movie’s premiere with countless features and commentaries on the state of race relations in the United States. While these high-falutin magazines spreads have universally praised the movie as a stellar achievement, only independent film critics have dared express the truth of the film’s artistic mediocrity.
“Amistad” has been inducted by the media into that special cache of films selected for bigger and better things, joining the ranks of Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” The latter was effectively used for a higher purpose, as a historical record and a means of injecting emotional resonance into an era out of textbooks. “Amistad” might do the same thing, although in many ways it is ill-suited for that role.
The story of a small group of heroic mutineers absolved by a legal technicality is ineffective as a vehicle to explore the terrible reality of slavery in the New World. Yet, most problematically, unlike “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad” is not being treated as mere historical record.
“Amistad” has been conscripted for the task of facilitating our Presidentially mandated racial catharsis. But the movie’s simplistic message, while important, cannot inform the horrendous complexities of a serious contemporary discussion of race. What does “Amistad” teach its audience? Slavery was bad, a terrible crime. Freedom is much better. How does this message translate into grand societal issues?
For the editors of Newsweek, the big questions were: Should the U.S. government apologize for slavery? Should we build a memorial to slavery? And how should we approach the slave ownership by the founding fathers?
The President’s Race Advisory Board, charged with orchestrating the national dialogue, has chosen to follow the same fuzzy, emotion-driven path. Thankfully, the idea of an apology for the misdeeds of the dead has been apparently squashed, recognizing that such a move would accomplish nothing.
The push for a slave memorial on the National Mall remains strong, a harmless gesture that could be valuable as a balm for the historical wound. But critics point out that space on the Mall will rapidly run out if we construct a monument for every crime that western society has committed on its rise to hegemony.
Perhaps most absurd is the controversy surrounding the treatment of the founding fathers. Tours of Mt. Vernon now include a supplemental section focused on the poor condition of the slaves held there. New Orleans recently removed George Washington’s name from a public elementary school out of sensitivity to black students. If this process of retrospective condemnation continues, our currency may soon require quite a face-lift. May I suggest Jesse Jackson for the dollar bill?
Even if one sees worth in some or all of the causes our national dialogue has embraced, it seems impossible to justify the behavior of the Race Advisory Board with regard to the most important race-related issue of our time: affirmative action. Early in the supposed discourse, John Hope Franklin, the chair of the board, refused to hear from opponents of affirmative action. Franklin stated that these pariahs “don’t speak the same language” as more enlightened thinkers such as himself.
Since some recent criticism over the remarks, President Clinton has pressured the board to host more opposing viewpoints. Still, the dialogue has shown little progress. In the New York Times, Felicia R. Lee described a recent town meeting in Akron, Ohio, as a “serial monologue, an airing of grievances and personal perspectives” — not the sort of gathering that leads to much progress.
In many ways, then, “Amistad” is the consummate 1990s film about race in America. Its thematic simplicity is a perfect representation for where we are today. Slavery was bad, freedom is good. We don’t get along, but we need to. Spielberg offers no lesson on how we can overcome the dark past he depicts and build the harmony that we so desperately seek.
It is a shame that the President’s initiative on race has, thus far, been equally devoid of substance. Nonetheless, any attempt to find solutions to our current predicament in “Amistad” will only further mire us in useless guilt and silly symbolic gestures. The only legitimate lesson that weepy moviegoers should take away from this holiday season is this: Beware of unsinkable ships.

Noah D. Oppenheim’s column originally appeared in Monday’s edition of the Harvard Crimson.