Friday, December 29, 2006

"Give us us free"

I found myself smiling as I read Michael Dequina’s review of Amistad ( I did agree with him that the film was American-centered, especially with its focus on the courtroom drama; but that was to be expected. Amistad is an American film, directed and produced by Americans for an American audience. However, something about that film touched me.

Language is of essence in Amistad. That the viewer had no clue what Sengbe Pieh and the other Africans were saying as they revolted was not accidental. The decision to exclude subtitles for the beginning portion of the film was a deliberate one. It made the men, women and children inscrutable figures to the viewer. Their silhouettes were only visible in the moonlight as they struck at their Spanish ‘masters’. Just as the distinguishing features and marks on their faces were invisible to the terror-stricken crew, they had to remain so to the viewer. Their humanity was thus masked, hidden from the viewer. The viewer was being forced to see things from the perspective of the Spanish men. It was only when the violent act had been performed and the tables were turned that the faceless Africans became distinct human beings.

The emergence of the West Africans seems to be reversed when they are recaptured. Their inability to speak for themselves in the courthouse underlines this new powerlessness. At several points in the narrative, a clash between two ‘universes’ (‘African’ and ‘Western’) is obvious. The two universes refuse to overlap and for a while it seems that the West Africans’ true story is fated to remain unheard. However, the illuminating sub-titles reveal a parallelism between the 2 universes: Sengbe Pieh speaks of the place from which he came in response to Roger S Baldwin’s inquiry. Their communication is possible, not through their words, but through their gestures and movements. Later, ‘James Covey’, a bilingual Mende and English speaker emerges and is charged with facilitating communication between the Africans and the non-Africans. These instances seem to level the playing field for the West Africans.

Traduttore…Traditore. Translator… traitor.

By self-consciously pointing at the layers of mediation involved in ‘telling the story’, the film seems to proclaim that interpretation is inevitable and sometimes deceptive. Notwithstanding these obstacles, the story must be told. The questions remain: How does one tell the story of the West Africans to an American audience? Is it possible to take away the American lenses and look at the West Africans through West African eyes? Would such an attempt prove unintelligible to an American audience?

Instead of answering these questions, I point to additional instances of ‘mediation’ in the film: Consider the transformation of the West Africans’ clothing as the film progresses. Their near nakedness in the holds of the ship is followed by the revolt. They then find cloth to drape themselves in. Afterwards, during their later appearances in the courthouse they are uniformly clothed in simple ‘Western’ clothing. It is almost as if they have been ‘tamed’, made more aesthetically pleasing to those sitting in the courtroom and to the viewer. Their humanity rises a notch higher in the eyes of those observing. As the film progresses, it seems that the West Africans are starting to look more like ‘us’. The process that transforms ‘us’, allowing ‘us’ to understand them better, transforms them as well. Their appearance transforms, and they are slowly pulled into the Western worldview through their encounter with the Bible. The linguist, Gibbs, teaches Baldwin and his colleagues to count in Mende and Sengbe Pieh demands his freedom in English.
Creative Commons License This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

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