The Fight For `Amistad' -- After A 20-Year Struggle, Dancer- Actress Debbie Allen Is Bringing The Story Of A Historic Slave Revolt To The Screen

Movies about the 19th-century Africa-to-America slave trade are notably rare. One of the few studio films to deal with the story, Tay Garnett's "Slave Ship," starring Wallace Beery and featuring a horrendous sequence in which African slaves are chained to an anchor and thrown overboard, was released 60 years ago.

Then there was "Roots," the 1977 television miniseries that was such a huge ratings success that it seemed to open the way to filming similar stories. That's what Debbie Allen thought when she read an account of an 1839 revolt aboard a slave ship, the Amistad.

Two decades after she first decided to make the film, her production of "Amistad," directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Djimon Hounsou as Cinque, the African leader of the mutiny, is finally coming to theaters. The Wednesday opening in New York and Los Angeles will be followed Friday by a wider release.

All along, she believed "Amistad" had story elements that had made popular successes of such historical dramas as "Spartacus" and "Mutiny on the Bounty." The studios thought otherwise.

"I felt that this would be a great medium to tell the story and to reach a massive audience," she said by phone from New York. "You couldn't really find it in history textbooks. But I soon found it wasn't going to be an easy thing to accomplish.

"People said things like, `This is not going to be of interest to anyone.' It was just about some Africans on a slave ship, or they

said they had no interest in period films, or they'd actually say things like, `Don't you have a musical?' " (Allen is best known as a dancer-actress and choreographer.)

In 1984, after optioning William Owens' novelization, "Black Mutiny," she hoped they'd see the story in more dramatic terms.

"I knew executives needed more than a basic history, though I wanted a lot more hammered out beyond this book," she said. "There's an enormous amount of historical documentation, though you won't find it in most schools.

"I don't know if there is too conservative a mindset with those people in control of history textbooks, or maybe it's because it raises this African man to the status of a hero and celebrates him. I think it's a very healing story."

Around the time of her success on television's "Fame," Allen thought of directing the picture herself.

"I was hot after `Fame,' " she said. "I had a lot of people's attention, but I still got nowhere."

Only when she took the project to Spielberg, shortly after she saw "Schindler's List" four years ago, did the movie start to come together.

"That was my turning point," she said. "I was sure he was the filmmaker I needed and had hoped for all this time. He had the humanity and the courage. I saw what he did in `Schindler's List,' and I knew about his own struggle to tell that story."

Even after he agreed to do the picture, she said, "it was not really supported by studio executives, who thought this was not the right idea. They'd suggest he make a donation, and don't make the movie."

Criticisms of Spielberg's handling of the 1985 film "The Color Purple" never worried her.

"I just looked at that movie for what it was," she said. "I thought that Steven made a beautiful movie at a time when there was no real volume of presence for African Americans as filmmakers or actors."

She thinks he came under fire because the movie's unflattering portrait of black men (taken directly from Alice Walker's novel) was almost the only presence for black men in mainstream movies at the time. In 1986, Spike Lee would enter the scene and revolutionize the business.

" `The Color Purple' had to hold for the whole picture, and that's why it was criticized," said Allen. "If it opened with a lot of movies today like `Soul Food,' `Jerry Maguire,' `Men in Black' or `Booty Call,' it would be taken differently."

As far as she is concerned, David Franzoni was the only screenwriter for the "Amistad" project. He had written the acclaimed cable movie "Citizen Cohn," and he's been working on other historical movies, including "George Washington" and "The Mayor of Castro Street."

"The first challenge was for the script to find a writer," she said. "After I first talked with Steven for about an hour and a half, he said, `We've got to find a writer.' DreamWorks (Spielberg's new company) had just started, and it was bigger than Amblin (his old one) in terms of the amount of work they needed to produce."

What impressed Allen was a script Franzoni had written about George Washington.

"Here was a man with a real appetite for history, for putting the story into this epic form," she said. "I worked with him very closely, and with (executive producers) Walter (Parkes), Laurie (MacDonald) and Steven as well, in creating characters like the Joadson character (a black American abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman).

"I wanted to see the black people at the center of the abolitionist movement, mirroring the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. There were already many educated black men and women in this movement 20 years before the Amistad revolt."

Freeman is a composite character, though Allen believes he is mostly based on one person.

"In my mind Morgan was always James Fortin, who was actually a millionaire who supported the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator."

Partly because the Africans went through several trials, the storyline became complicated. It includes flashbacks to the kidnapped Africans' horrendous "middle passage" between Africa and Jamaica, and ends with John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) defending them before the Supreme Court.

"There was no room for all these characters, so we had to cut some," said Allen. "I always felt it should start with this incredibly brutal revolt. We would meet Cinque and the others without much sympathy or understanding."

One reason it's difficult to sympathize with the Africans in the opening scenes is that we don't know what Cinque or the other Africans are saying. Their language is not translated in subtitles. This was quite deliberate.

"Steven early on decided he did not want to use translations in the beginning," she said. "He wanted to create that barrier."

Later, their situation becomes clearer.

"I always thought this should be an incredible courtroom drama," she said, "and at that point we'd (flash back to) the middle passage. That was always my take on it."

The final scenes suggest a bleak outcome for Cinque, who was taken from his wife and children.

"What we really know is that he went back to Africa and his family was gone," she said. "He ended up with the American missionaries. There are totally unsubstantiated stories that he became a slave trader himself. There's no inkling of evidence of him becoming a slaver. There is some indication that he went to Jamaica to find his family."

Most important was the casting of Cinque, whose character begins and ends the movie. Djimon Hounsou, who had a small part in "Stargate," got the role.

"Once we had a script written, the casting was the most important thing," she said. "We knew he would not be so easy to find. It was going to be a challenge. Djimon will be a very fresh face to the broad moviegoing public. That's something that was very important to me and to Steven."

The drama of Cinque's story has also inspired an opera that had its premiere last week at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (all performances are sold out through January). A paperback reissue of 1987's "Mutiny on the Amistad" is in the stores, and so is a novelization of the movie, "based on the screenplay by David Franzoni and Steve Zaillian."

Zaillian won an Oscar for writing Spielberg's "Schindler's List," and his name is all over the advance ads for "Amistad." But last month the Writers' Guild ruled that his name had to be taken off the movie altogether; he apparently provided quite a bit of dialogue, but the story structure is Franzoni's. The authorship is in dispute for other reasons.

Another writer, Barbara Chase-Riboud, claims that her out-of-print 1989 novel, "Echo of Lions," has been ripped off, and that Freeman's character is stolen from her book. She's trying to block the release of the picture with a lawsuit.

"It's a regrettable situation," said Allen. "I don't know Barbara. I know how she could feel. But we didn't use her book. I didn't know it existed."

Meanwhile, DreamWorks has launched a countersuit, claiming that Chase-Riboud borrowed from "Black Mutiny." A hearing will take place tomorrow.

Although the 150-minute "Amistad" will inevitably be compared to "Schindler's List," Allen sees it as a different kind of story.

"`Schindler's List' is three hours of anguish and suffering," she said. "This is about Africans who had never become slaves, how they were surviving here, and about their rage to get their freedom." ------------------------------------------- Debbie Allen on TV

"Intimate Portrait: Debbie Allen," a one-hour special about her career and her involvement with "Amistad," will be telecast at 10 tonight on the Lifetime Channel.