Amistad in the News

Before turning to our updsated status report on the lawsuit against Steven Spielberg and the makers of the motion picture "Amistad", we'd like to pass along a provocative comment that you might have escaped your attention.

Writing in the New York Times, Frank Rich observes: "While the Amistad saga gruelingly recalls the horrors of slavery, it also leaves the audience with an 'up' ending: Here is an instance, some 20 years before the Civil War, when the system worked, vanquishing injustice. So what's the problem now?"

Rich goes on to say that "for those, young and old, who are acquainted with the stain of slavery, an obsession with the Amistad story may be a diversion, however worthy, from what ails us now -- a form of escapism akin to the months-long debate over a slavery apology. The whole country can, after all, agree that slavery is bad -- and still come to blows over affirmative action."

And now for our status report on the lawsuit:

Barabara Chase-Riboud, author of a well-regarded novel about President Thomas Jefferson's supposed black slave mistress, has sued Steven Spielberg and the makers of the movie "Amistad" for plagiarism.

Chase-Riboud claims that many parts of the movie were stolen from another of her novels, "Echo of Lions", which was based on the historical Amistad slave ship rebellion.

On December 8, a Federal judge refused to grant Chase-Riboud an injunction that would have halted the release of the film. But the court permitted the lawsuit to go forward. The next hearing is scheduled for early in the new year.

In particular, Chase-Riboud charges that in addition to historical figures -- such as Cinque, leader of the Amistad rebels and former President John Quincy Adams, who defended the Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court -- at least one character in the film was taken from one she invented for her novel.

In the movie, Morgan Freeman plays a well-educated and wealthy African-American from Connecticut, who sponsors the rebel's cause. Such a character also appears in Chase-Riboud's book. According to her attorneys, the fact that there would have been few such individuals in historical eighteenth-century New England makes this highly signficant.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was Chase-Riboud's editor at the time, is said to have submitted the novel to Spielberg's company, Amblin Entertainment, in 1988. Spielberg denies ever having read the book.

Chase-Riboud's case will probably hinge on the film's credited screenwriter, David Franzoni, who has given inconsistent accounts of how familiar he was with Chase-Riboud's novel.

Chase-Riboud's lead attorney previously represented the newspaper columnist Art Buchwald when he successfully sued Paramount for plagiarism in connection with Eddie Murphy's movie "Coming to America".

Spiegel and his partners in Dreamworks have countered that Chase-Riboud is herself guilty of plagiarizing an earlier work, "Black Mutiny" by William A. Owens. This book was optioned in 1984 by Debbie Allen, producer of "Amistad".

It was recently revealed that in an earlier historical novel, Chase-Riboud quoted passages from another book without giving credit to the book's author or indicating that the words were not her own. While this has no direct bearing on the "Amistad" case, the filmmakers will no doubt use it to discredit Chase-Riboud.