From the Film and Media column in the December 1997 Perspectives

A Historian Goes to Hollywood: The Spielberg Touch

Howard Jones, December 1997

Late afternoon of Friday, March 28, 1997, the phone rang in the history office of the University of Alabama. Kay Branyon, our department secretary, informed me that Cinqué Henderson from DreamWorks studio in Hollywood was on the phone. "Sure," I responded with poorly disguised skepticism. Kay was either mistaken, I thought, or she was again demonstrating her well-known sense of humor.

Taking the call, I was stunned that the caller was indeed Cinqué Henderson, an executive with DreamWorks. "Steven Spielberg," Cinqué explained, "wishes to invite you to Hollywood, where you can meet him and watch the making of some scenes from his forthcoming movie, Amistad. Are you interested?"

After regaining my composure, I was amazed to hear myself not only accept the invitation, but to have the audacity to ask if my wife Mary Ann could accompany me--at my expense, of course. "No problem. We can arrange for both of you to visit the set," Cinqué pleasantly responded. This was an especially opportune time, he noted. Spielberg would be shooting the mutiny and I would meet Djimon Hounsou, who was playing Joseph Cinqué, leader of the uprising. I found out later that Djimon was a young model from West Africa who had been in a number of videos, including some made by Madonna and Janet Jackson. I discovered also that by a curious coincidence, Cinqué Henderson, the DreamWorks executive, not only had an eponymous connection with the leader of the uprising, he had even written his senior thesis at Harvard on the Amistad revolt.

This experience with Hollywood was actually not my first. Even before publication of my book, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987; revised, 1997), writers and producers in Hollywood had expressed interest in making the story into either a TV drama or full-scale motion picture. Twice the book had come under option, the second time with TriStar Pictures, which renewed the option once but allowed the contract to expire in June 1996 because of the company's difficulties with another movie under production.

In that same month a friend in Los Angeles sent me a newspaper article about Steven Spielberg's decision to make the movie with the new studio funded by Microsoft's Bill Gates, DreamWorks SKG of Hollywood. To my chagrin, Spielberg intended to base the movie on a novel read by Fame choreographer and actress Debbie Allen when she was a college student at Howard University, and on documents gathered from the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans and other depositories. Debbie had convinced Spielberg that the Amistad project was worthwhile and that she should be its producer. DreamWorks planned to begin filming in February 1997 and to complete its work in 60 working days.

Disappointed at not being part of the production, either as a consultant or with my book providing the main story line, I nonetheless was pleased that a person of Spielberg's distinction was taking on such an important task, particularly because of his award-winning movie Schindler's List. The historical accuracy of the Amistad story was all important, and I felt confident that Spielberg, despite his right to poetic license, would maintain its factual base. Not only did the story pulsate with high drama, but it dealt with the long-standing struggle between human and property rights and thereby provided a prelude to the issues that split a nation and brought on the Civil War. American abolitionists, black and white, worked together in the Amistad affair, taking advantage of its revelations to expose the evils of the African slave trade and slavery itself. Spielberg had an opportunity to blend history with artistry, bridging the gulf between historians and the general reader by making history both interesting and accessible on a wide scale. At long last, a broad range of people would learn about the only instance in history in which blacks captured in Africa and brought to the New World as slaves won their freedom and made it back home.

Why did it take nearly 160 years for such a dramatic story to come to the public's attention? Why would Steven Spielberg make the movie? Above all, why would he, so powerful and well-known a celebrity, want to meet a historian?

These questions and more crossed my mind as Mary Ann and I boarded the plane in Birmingham, Alabama, bound for Hollywood. At the Los Angeles airport, we were greeted by a chauffeur-driven limousine, which took us directly to the movie set in Van Nuys. All around the vast fenced-in area were signs reading Amistad. Cars, RVs, trucks, all kinds of people attired in all kinds of garb swished quickly to and fro across the expansive parking lot, in and out of a huge warehouse-like building that I realized was an airplane hangar. What struck me as sheer pandemonium somehow had a sense of organization. As we made our way through the heavy black tarp dropped over the door to keep out the light, I noted next to the entrance a large number of carpenters—always on call to construct or modify the set at a moment's notice.

Once inside the hangar, we began to grasp the miracle that is necessary to create a movie out of sheer bedlam. Among the myriad features were a steady volume of noise, flashing lights, directors with bullhorns barking orders at crew, workers scurrying every which way, actors and actresses milling around waiting for a shot, reporters and visitors of all kinds, almost everyone munching on food or downing a drink, and, interestingly enough, a bonanza of cellular phones. We still recall the vivid image of Debbie Allen, standing in front of us while carrying on two telephone conversations at once, a phone pressed against each ear.

We met Debbie Allen almost immediately on our arrival on the set and discovered what a sparkling, vivacious, charming, and likable person she is. She took the time to explain what was going on, what scenes were under way, and who was who. Most importantly, she reiterated Cinqué's assurance that we would meet Steven Spielberg.

Especially impressive was the replica of the Amistad itself, standing directly in the middle of the hangar. As we looked at the hull and gazed upward to the huge sail and mast, we almost did not notice that the vessel rested on massive gimbals that enabled the engineers to create the illusion of rocking and overall movement in time with the rhythmic toss of the sea. We climbed steep stairs to tour the deck and were amazed at its detail and realism. We saw the more than 40 West Africans brought to the set by DreamWorks to add legitimacy to the production. We found out later that many of these young people had been away from home for months and were homesick. Debbie, however, had danced with them, sung tribal songs with them, and cooked native meals for them, all part of her genuine caring impulse.

At long last the moment arrived: we met Steven Spielberg. He was not difficult to locate or to identify. His ever-present baseball cap, worn and faded jeans, floppy tennis shoes, shirt tied around his neck over a tee-shirt, wispish beard, casual and unpretentious nature, and wire- rimmed glasses made him, despite his diminutive stature, stand out from the hordes of people who swarmed around him like locusts. Mary Ann and I had been sitting on those well-known director and producer chairs for some time. We were captivated by the hubbub that inevitably surrounds such a huge enterprise—particularly when at its epicenter dwells a character bigger than life. Debbie motioned for us to join her in meeting the man whose name had become synonymous with success in Hollywood.

Mary Ann and I made our way through the thick ring of people and into the center. There stood Steven Spielberg, hand outstretched, with a warm and compelling smile. Before I could speak, he declared, "I'm so happy to meet one of the historians who has had the courage to write about such a controversial subject in a manner that has enabled me to put the story on the screen." Somehow I replied, "I am so pleased that you are making this movie. Because of your work, the story will finally make its way into the history books where it belongs. Your efforts will further close the gap between history and artistry, becoming a model for others to emulate." He seemed particularly grateful for these remarks. In the space of perhaps three minutes, he had made a lasting impression on us.

The rest of the time that first day we spent on our chairs, three feet behind Spielberg as he gazed into a small, color monitor that viewed the ship situated in front of him and directed various parts of the movie. We were amazed at the rapport and respect he commanded. The key to his success, of course, is not only his insistence on perfection but also the manner with which he attempts to reach that objective. He did not rely on demands, insults, bullying, or even condescension in dealing with actors and actresses. Rather, he used a hands-on approach, sometimes acting out the scene himself, always expressing praise for the actor. "That was really good," he responded to one actor after a scene. "But can we try it just one more time?" After shooting the scene again and again (from every conceivable angle) until it finally met Spielberg's high standards, he declared with great excitement: "Perfect! That was simply perfect! That's a print! Wonderful job!" What glowing words for an actor to hear from such an exacting director.

Lunch itself proved an extraordinary experience. Table after table held a wide assortment. Debbie invited Mary Ann and me to join her at one of the numerous picnic tables, where we sat with several people, including a reporter from the London Times who, after the introductions, asked if my book was the basis of the movie. I referred him to Debbie, who responded that they had used more than one book in making the movie but that Mutiny on the Amistad was the best scholarly work.

That evening after nearly 12 hours on the set, Spielberg—on the spot—concocted a highly effective idea intended to show the stark contrasts between the poor, bedraggled mutineers and the rich, well-dressed members of contemporary high society. He first asked all the Africans to stand on the deck of the Amistad and gaze forlornly at a huge sailing vessel passing by, filled with wealthy passengers eating fine foods, drinking champagne, and listening to classical music from a small orchestra. The camera scanned the occupants of each vessel as they passed almost silently by in the waning daylight, staring across the narrow gulf of water between the vessels that symbolized the separation between two entirely different modes of life.

Spielberg proved a master of illusion in making this scene, for in reality the rich passengers were on board a 12-foot long, high-standing wagon that a group of workers pulled by rope past the stationary replica of the Amistad. To create the illusion of a long vessel, the first set of passengers exchanged places with a second set, who also passed by, to be replaced with a third group and then the orchestra itself. Finally came the crew. In addition to the workers' repeatedly tugging the wagon past the Amistad, another group busily replenished the partly consumed food and drink.

Having watched the day's shoot, I came to realize why historians were welcome on the set. Among the many visitors was Lerone Bennett, author of Before the Mayflower and now executive editor of Ebony magazine, who confirmed my feeling that Spielberg sought to portray the black holocaust in all its horror and wanted historians around to add authenticity to the production. Indeed, he had earlier invited John Hope Franklin to the set. Moreover, Spielberg kept by his side during the entire production Arthur Abraham, a professor of African studies in Sierra Leone, West Africa, who specializes in Mende history and language and provided both Spielberg and the actors with expert guidance. "Where is the professor?" Spielberg called out, when it became necessary to coach Hounsou on a Mende phrase. Finally, Spielberg had brought on as consultants Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, and Clifton Johnson, emeritus head of the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans.

That evening, I talked with Spielberg again. There had been a break in the action, and I was standing a few feet in the background, watching him as he waited for the crew to make final preparations for the next scene. He turned, saw me standing alone, and joined me. I remarked that even though he surely knew where he was going with the production, the entire affair seemed so chaotic that I was amazed that a movie could result. He laughed and talked about how, in the midst of great confusion and haste, they had remained on the set for nearly 24 hours the last day in Newport, Rhode Island, determined to complete that part of the movie rather than having to return the following day.

The big day for the movie was the second day: Spielberg was to shoot the mutiny. More visitors than normal were there, including Debbie's young son and the children of the writer, Steve Zaillian (who had also written Schindler's List), all dismissed from school for this educational experience. Great anticipation electrified the air, for this was the single most important event that had launched this epic into history and now Hollywood. It had made a legend out of Joseph Cinqué, who, because of the demands of circumstance, had accepted the responsibilities thrust upon him and emerged a legitimate hero.

The mutiny took place at night and in a great thunderstorm off northern Cuba on July 2, 1839. Nearly all lighting in the hangar was turned off to bring night; to create the illusion of rain, the crew turned on a powerful sprinkling system full force. Anyone standing within 40 feet of the Amistad received one warning that they would get wet; production personnel were attired in raincoats and boots. "Quiet on the set!" roared a crew member over and over as the cameras began to roll. Lightning flashed from darkened skies as brilliantly beamed bright lights switched on and off at irregular intervals. Thunder rolled and clapped as the crew demonstrated its adeptness in engineering sound effects. As the Amistad rocked and pitched on its gimbals, gigantic fans whipped up great gusts of wind that blew water across the deck, forced the sails to flap wildly and loudly in the storm, and created high waves that slapped nearly halfway up the mast. All the while, a special machine released a fine misty fog, casting an eerie, ghostlike aura onto the battle about to ensue.

At that point Cinqué emerged from the hold, shadowy in form and wearing only a loin cloth and a piece of ragged clothing over his chest. The erratic bursts of light flashed off the heavy blade of a machete-like weapon he had found below, a wide-handled tool used to hack the stalks of Cuban sugar cane. Through the heavy rain and flashes of light, he saw one of the Spanish crew members frantically trying to lower the sail and, sneaking up behind him, buried the weapon in his back. A scream of agony followed Cinqué's mighty thrust, only to be followed by a sudden "Cut! Cut! That's no good! There's no blood spurting! There must be blood spurting!" Spielberg had stopped the mutiny, shocking the huge audience already spellbound by a scene that, to us, had seemed perfect. Not so. Cinqué crawled back into the hold and was asked to kill the sailor again and again until the scene was right.

On the second day, we had our picture taken with Spielberg. The photographer had already taken pictures of us with Debbie Allen, Djimon Hounsou, Lerone Bennett, Arthur Abraham, and others, but we had been unable to find a moment with Spielberg. Late in the afternoon, I asked Cinqué Henderson if he could arrange the occasion, and he did so. As Spielberg was leaving the set for a break, Cinqué stopped him and called us over for a picture. I first gave Spielberg a copy of my book, which he accepted with kind appreciation and insisted that I sign it. There we were, Spielberg on my right and Mary Ann on my left when Spielberg said, "No, no. That won't do. I want Mary Ann in the middle." He gave her a polite buss on the cheek and put his arm around her as I slid to the left. Not until the picture arrived almost two months later did I realize that Spielberg had held my book to the front, its title prominently in view.

We left for home the following day, recalling each experience again and again, and encouraged by Debbie Allen's assurances that she intended to keep in touch about a related project. She and Cinqué Henderson had gotten Spielberg's approval to make two TV specials promoting the movie and wanted me to participate in both of them. One would be an A & E biography of Joseph Cinqué, the other a History Channel documentary on the "Middle Passage" of the African slave trade. They also assured us that we would receive an invitation to a huge party on the East Coast celebrating the opening of the movie and that we would attend its premiere—hopefully, they said, in the White House with the president in attendance.

Although I was doubtful about these prospects, Debbie's phone call came in late July: the negotiations had been successful. Triage Productions, in charge of A & E, the History Channel, and HBO, arranged my second trip to Hollywood and a stay in the Marina Beach Marriott.

For nearly an hour the first day and for more than two hours the following day, I was interviewed on tape by Debbie Allen and others about the Amistad, Cinqué, and the African slave trade. Several others were interviewed as well, including John Hope Franklin. In the course of the interviews, Debbie declared that no one had dared to make a movie of the Amistad because the story dispelled the image of blacks as "Sambos" who were quietly acquiescent to slavery. It was a risk making such a movie, she admitted, but Spielberg had agreed to take that chance.

Exhausted and yet exhilarated by the morning's experience, I relaxed at lunch, thinking it was over, only to receive an unexpected invitation to participate in a third TV show: I would introduce the subject of the Amistad revolt for an HBO special on the making of the movie that would include Spielberg, the stars, and film clips from Amistad.

Topping off this rewarding experience was a group dinner invitation that night from Debbie Allen. A limousine arrived to transport five of us to her luxurious home, where we talked over cocktails in the kitchen while she cooked dinner. It was at this point that the doorbell rang and Djimon Hounsou entered the room; he had heard that we were going to be there and showed up unannounced.

While all these events were taking place, Oxford University Press issued a revised version of my book in both paper and cloth and assigned a senior publicist to its marketing campaign. "Purdy" (the publicist), arranged a tour of New England that included TV and radio interviews (one of which was the Joan Rivers show), lectures, and book signings. In the meantime the editors at American History magazine invited me to write an article on the subject, and Mutiny on the Amistad became a December selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, History Book Club, and Quality Paperback Book Club. In one of those rare moments, history and Hollywood had proved warmly compatible, perhaps even encouraging a wider reading about the Amistad as well as other engaging events that comprise the essence of history. The impact of the "Spielberg touch" is phenomenal.

It has been a wonderful ride so far. And yet, I feel the best is yet to come. Good Morning, America touted Amistad as the best movie of the year and, even though at this writing I have seen neither script nor movie (Spielberg has it locked in a vault), past experience strongly suggests another series of awards, perhaps even the big one.

—Howard Jones is university research professor and chair of the history department at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He would like to thank Robert B. Toplin for inviting him to write the essay, and his colleagues, Lawrence Clayton, Lawrence F. Kohl, and Forrest McDonald, for reading the manuscript and offering helpful advice.