Yale Acquires Print of "Amistad" from DreamWorks Pictures

DreamWorks Pictures has donated a 35mm print of the feature film “Amistad” to Yale University’s Film Studies Program and Film Study Center, thanks to executive producer and DreamWorks co-head Walter Parkes (Yale College, Class of 1973). The print will be used exclusively for classroom purposes.

The request came through Charles Musser, associate professor of American studies and film studies. Musser explained, “The economics of classroom teaching are such that students routinely end up seeing important films like ‘Amistad’ on video. Faculty and students alike are hampered because they cannot fully grasp a film’s deep emotional impact – and key elements of its meaning and stylistics – unless they see it on the big screen, in its original 35mm format. We are delighted that DreamWorks has enabled us to solve this problem with ‘Amistad.’”

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, depicts a significant event in New Haven’s history. It had its Connecticut premiere at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center in December 1997, shortly before opening nationwide. The screening attracted extensive media coverage and the demand for tickets was intense.

The film presents the true story of a group of Africans kidnapped into slavery who rose up against their captors in 1839, fought for, and eventually won their freedom. Yale students, faculty and alumni joined local abolitionists and others around the country to help the 50 Africans who were jailed in New Haven on charges of piracy and murder.

Members of the Yale community arranged for the prisoners to be defended in court by attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin (Class of 1811), who went on to become governor of Connecticut and later, U.S. senator. Yale Professor Josiah Willard Gibbs Sr. (Class of 1809) studied the Africans’ language and located a translator for them. Divinity students taught the captives English, Christianity and practical skills. The prisoners were eventually acquitted, first in the Connecticut courts and, later, in the U.S. Supreme Court, defended by former President John Quincy Adams. They remained in Connecticut until funds could be raised to send them home to Sierra Leone in 1841.

Bryan Wolf, chair of the American Studies Program at Yale, and Hazel Carby, chair of African and African-American Studies, expressed a strong desire to show the film to their classes. Secondary school teachers in New Haven felt the same way. This interest from the educational community motivated DreamWorks to make the gift.

Explaining her interest in the film, Carby said, “ ‘Amistad’ has represented historical experiences on the screen in a way that has not been shown before. The film has been path-breaking in provoking a discussion of slavery in the United States PP creating desperately needed conversations across a whole range of educational institutions, most notably in the public schools. In addition, I am hoping this will provide an opportunity for students from the African and African-American studies department to work with those in New Haven public schools.”

Wolf added, “ ‘Amistad’ is fascinating, both as a study of the liberal imagination of the 1990s and as an examination of the racial politics of the 1830s.”

Through the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, New Haven public school teachers will be able to bring their students to screenings at the Whitney Humanities Center. Institute director James Vivian remarked, “Despite the best efforts of many teachers, New Haven high school students were often unable to see the film when it first came out. This will be an exciting opportunity for them. We’re delighted to help make this happen.”

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Media Contact

Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325