This movie begins with Joseph Cinqué (whose true name was Sengbe Pieh), an African on the schooner La Amistad, leading a revolt that frees the other Africans and kills most of the crew. They force the ship's captain to steer back to Africa, but the captain tricks them and heads to the United States where the Africans are captured and jailed.
Word gets out immediately to U.S. President Martin Van Buren, Queen Isabella II of Spain, and a group of abolitionists. The group of Africans are charged with mutiny and murder. There are also property claims by the Queen Isabella II of Spain, the captain of the ship, the people who captured the Africans, and others. A young lawyer, Baldwin, is brought on the case by the abolitionists.
Baldwin finds a translator (Chiwetel Ejiofor in his first film role) and talks to Cinqué, who has become the leader of the group of Africans. In flashbacks, Cinqué tells about his life. He was captured in Africa and brought to the Caribbean Islands by an infamous Middle Passage slave vessel named the Tecora. Cinqué tells of the various horrors of the Middle Passage, such as when fifty people were drowned to save rations. Cinqué was finally taken to the Caribbean Islands, where he was illegally sold to the owners of La Amistad.
In the district court, Baldwin brings as evidence a book he found on the ship. It conclusively proves that the Africans did indeed come from Africa. The defendants' birthplace was a matter of critical importance because U.S. law at the time outlawed anyone who wasn't the child of a slave from being enslaved (based on the provision in the United States Constitution that permitted Congress to outlaw the African slave trade starting in the year 1809). This meant that those held aboard La Amistad were being traded illegally, and were officially abducted citizens of West Africa. As such, they were legally permitted to use deadly force to secure their release (thus making the killings upon the ship justifiable homicide...
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