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The schooner La Amistad is carrying Africans abducted from Sierra Leone and sold in Cuba into slavery. One of the slaves, Sengbe Pieh, most known by his slave name “Cinqué”, initiates a rebellion on the ship. Most of the crew are killed. The Africans keep the ship’s owners alive, believing they can navigate the vessel back to West Africa.
Six weeks later, the vessel is low on food and fresh water when they sight land. Unsure of their location, a group take a boat to shore to fetch fresh water. La Amistad is found by a United States military vessel; the Spaniards tricked the Africans, sailing up the Atlantic coast. Amistad is impounded. The Africans are imprisoned while a court determines ownership of the vessel and whether the slaves will be freed. Great Britain, the United States and Spain have prohibited the international slave trade, but the Spanish owners claim the slaves were born on a Cuban plantation and are thus legal domestic slaves.
In Washington, D.C., John Quincy Adams, former President and sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts, meets leading abolitionists Theodore Joadson, a freed slave, and activist Lewis Tappan. Intent on gaining the Amistad Africans’ freedom, the men seek Adams’ help with the court case. Adams claims he neither condemns nor condones slavery.
The current President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, is under pressure by Spanish Queen Isabella II, who demands compensation for the ship and the market value of the slaves. At a preliminary hearing, the Africans are charged with “insurrection on the high seas”. The case has conflicting claims of property ownership by Spain, the United States, the Spanish owners of the slaves and of La Amistad, and the American captain and first mate of the US vessel that took the ship into custody, as laws of the sea entitle them to salvage rights, including the slaves. The abolitionists enlist the help of an attorney specializing in property law: Roger Sherman Baldwin.
Baldwin and the abolitionists, along with Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr., a professor of linguistics, try speaking with the Amistad Africans, but neither side can comprehend the other. As the hearings drag on, Baldwin and Joadson approach Adams for advice. Adams advises them that, in court, the side with the best story usually wins. Unable to tell Adams what their story is, they realize it is imperative they communicate with the Africans. At the city docks they find a black sailor in the Royal Navy, James Covey, who speaks an African language.
Using Covey as a translator, Baldwin and his companions speak with Cinquè. He is allowed to give his account, through Covey, in the courtroom. Cinquè claims that he was a farmer and family man, kidnapped by slave-hunters and taken to Lomboko, an illegal slave facility in Sierra Leone. He and hundreds of other captured Africans were loaded onto the transatlantic slave-ship Tecora. Upon arriving in Cuba, Cinquè was sold at a slave market and purchased by the owners of La Amistad.
District Attorney William S. Holabird and Secretary of State John Forsyth press their case for respecting property rights, dismissing Cinquè’s story as fiction. While exploring La Amistad for evidence, Baldwin finds a notebook that gives accounts of their illegal slave-trading.
Presenting the notebook as evidence, Baldwin calls expert witnesses, including Captain Fitzgerald, a British naval officer assigned to patrol the West African coastline to enforce the British Empire’s anti-slavery policies. Judge Coglin dismisses all claims of ownership of the Africans. He orders the arrest of the Amistad’s owners and authorizes the United States to convey the Amistad Africans back to Africa.
Speaking with the Spanish Ambassador to Washington, Senator John C. Calhoun from South Carolina attacks President Van Buren; stressing the economic importance of slaves in the South, Calhoun suggests that if the government frees the Amistad Africans the South will go to war. President Van Buren orders the case appealled to the US Supreme Court, which is dominated by Southern slaveholder justices.
Joadson and Baldwin break the news to Cinquè. Needing a knowledgeable ally, Baldwin and Joadson meet again with John Quincy Adams. Aware that Cinquè refuses to talk to Baldwin, Adams invites Cinquè to his home. After speaking with him, Adams decides to assist the case.
At the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams passionately defends the Africans. The court authorizes the release of the Africans and their transportation to Africa, if they so wish. Cinquè bids farewell to his American companions.
British Royal Marines assault the Lomboko Slave Fortress, freeing Africans from its dungeons. With the fortress evacuated, Captain Fitzgerald orders it destroyed. Van Buren loses his re-election campaign. Cinquè and his fellow Africans return to Sierra Leone accompanied by James Covey. Cinquè finds his country in civil war and his wife and child missing, likely sold into slavery.
Morgan Freeman as Theodore Joadson
Nigel Hawthorne as Martin Van Buren
Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams
Djimon Hounsou as Sengbe Pieh / Joseph Cinqué
Matthew McConaughey as Roger Sherman Baldwin
David Paymer as Secretary of State John Forsyth
Pete Postlethwaite as William S. Holabird
Stellan Skarsgård as Lewis Tappan
Razaaq Adoti as Yamba
Abu Bakaar Fofanah as Fala
Anna Paquin as Queen Isabella II
Tomas Milian as Calderon
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ens. James Covey
Derrick Ashong as Buakei
Geno Silva as Ruiz
John Ortiz as Montes
Ralph Brown as Lieutenant Thomas L.Gedney
Darren E. Burrows as Lieutenant Richard W.Meade
Allan Rich as Judge Andrew T.Juttson
Paul Guilfoyle as Attorney
Peter Firth as Captain Fitzgerald
Xander Berkeley as Ledger Hammond
Jeremy Northam as Judge Coglin
Arliss Howard as John C. Calhoun
Austin Pendleton as Professor Gibbs
Pedro Armendáriz Jr. as General Espartero
Harry Blackmun as Justice Joseph Story
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun appears in the film as Justice Joseph Story.
This section does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (July 2014)
Actress and director Debbie Allen had run across some books about the mutiny on the ship, La Amistad, and brought the subject to HBO films, which chose to make a film adaption of the subject. She later presented the project to DreamWorks SKG to release the film, which agreed. Steven Spielberg, who wanted to stretch his artistic wings after making The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), was interested in directing it for DreamWorks, which he also co-founded as well. Spielberg was an unlikely person to tackle the Amistad story, since his previous picture about black characters, The Color Purple, had been badly received by the black community.
The lyrics from “Dry Your Tears, Afrika” (including the reprise) are from a 1967 poem by French-speaking Ivorian poet Bernard Binlin Dadié. The words are primarily in Mende, one of Sierra Leone’s major languages.
The Supreme Court decision reversed District and Circuit decrees regarding Africans’ conveyance back to Africa. They were to be deemed free, but the U.S. government could not take them back to Africa, as they had arrived on American soil as free people.[
Many academics, including Columbia University professor Eric Foner, have criticized Amistad for historical inaccuracy and the misleading characterizations of the Amistad case as a “turning point” in the American perspective on slavery.  Foner wrote:
“ In fact, the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade — by 1840 outlawed by international treaty — and had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery as a domestic institution. Incongruous as it may seem, it was perfectly possible in the nineteenth century to condemn the importation of slaves from Africa while simultaneously defending slavery and the flourishing slave trade within the United States. ”
“ Amistad’s problems go far deeper than such anachronisms as President Martin Van Buren campaigning for re-election on a whistle-stop train tour (in 1840, candidates did not campaign), or people constantly talking about the coming Civil War, which lay twenty years in the future. ”
The film version of Adams’ closing speech before the Supreme Court and the court’s decision bear no resemblance to the much longer historical versions; they are not even fair summaries.
Several inaccuracies occur during the film’s final scenes:
During the scene depicting the destruction of the Lomboko Fortress by a Royal Navy schooner, the vessel’s captain refers to another officer as “ensign”. This rank has never been used by the Royal Navy.
Amistad received mainly positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 76% based on reviews from 59 critics, with an average score of 6.9/10. Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today summed up the feelings of many reviewers when she wrote: “as Spielberg vehicles go, Amistad — part mystery, action thriller, courtroom drama, even culture-clash comedy — lands between the disturbing lyricism of Schindler’s List and the storybook artificiality of The Color Purple.” Roger Ebert awarded the film three out of four stars, writing:
“Amistad,” like Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” is […] about the ways good men try to work realistically within an evil system to spare a few of its victims. […] “Schindler’s List” works better as narrative because it is about a risky deception, while “Amistad” is about the search for a truth that, if found, will be small consolation to the millions of existing slaves. As a result, the movie doesn’t have the emotional charge of Spielberg’s earlier film — or of “The Color Purple,” which moved me to tears. […] What is most valuable about “Amistad” is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims.