Salvaging Amistad

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Moviemakers believe that history can be made more dramatic. They add and subtract characters, invent dialogue and scenes, make heroes more heroic, make villains more villainous, correct incorrectness, make ends happier, and turn shades of gray into black or white. They even tell lies-all in the interest of providing a good show, of course. Steven Spielberg, producer-director of the 1997 historical drama "Amistad," is no exception.

Whether Hollywood's reshaping of history is good or bad depends upon whether one believes it is more important to be thoroughly entertained or to have a clear sense of history. Right now, on this side of the Millennium, few people seem worked up about the fictionalizing of history.

The Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce is probably not the first source that most viewers of "Amistad" will consult to see if they got their history straight from Spielberg, but it is the aim of this article to make it a good choice for those who do. As the title of this journal suggests-and as its editor insists-special attention will be given in this article to the role admiralty law played in the improbable drama that began in 1839.

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Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce