Steven Spielberg’s heart bleeds for many worthy causes, and as a filmmaker he has tried to resurrect some woefully neglected chapters in the history of human rights. But on Oct. 17, a $10 million copyright-infringement suit was filed by novelist Barbara Chase-Riboud against his studio, Dreamworks SKG, in United States District Court in Los Angeles, alleging that substantial portions of his upcoming movie, Amistad , about a mutiny on a slave ship bound for America in the 1800’s, was stolen from her 1989 novel Echo of Lions .
Both sides are currently in discovery. But according to one of Ms. Chase-Riboud’s lawyers, John Shaeffer of the Los Angeles firm O’Donnell & Shaeffer, it is possible that an injunction could be brought against the film, which is due to open Dec. 10. One of Ms. Chase-Riboud’s other lawyers is Pierce O’Donnell, who won Art Buchwald’s plagiarism suit against Paramount over the Eddie Murphy movie Coming to America . In an Oct. 24 article in the Los Angeles Times , Mr. O’Donnell said he considers her case “far more compelling” than Mr. Buchwald’s and the first he has taken on a contingency basis since that case. Bert Fields, the Hollywood entertainment lawyer representing Dreamworks, said in the Los Angeles Times that the novelist’s accusations are “a nowhere claim … What is portrayed in the film is based on historical fact, not on her book, and you can’t monopolize a piece of American history.”
The piece of history Mr. Fields referred to is the so-called Amistad Incident, a surprisingly little-known event-at least outside the realm of African-American scholarship and a few recent children’s books-involving an uprising on a ship carrying slaves to America that occurred off the coast of Cuba in 1839. Joseph Cinque, the slave leader, was subsequently captured with his fellow Africans and brought to trial in New Haven, Conn., on charges of piracy and murder.
Ms. Chase-Riboud said she was shocked to learn about the movie for the first time from an announcement trumpeting Amistad in Variety in November 1996. What’s more, she said she finds it strange that the Spielberg camp is denying any familiarity with her 400-page novel, or any striking similarities between it and the film, since Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who edited her novel Sally Hemings at Viking, sent a copy of the Echo of Lions manuscript to Mr. Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, nine years ago with the thought that it might make a good movie. Amblin executives met with Ms. Chase-Riboud, she said, but a week later passed on the project because they claimed it was too large a topic for a feature film. Her suit claims that Amblin never returned her manuscript, nor the finished book that her publisher, William Morrow & Company, eventually sent the company. Mr. O’Donnell told the Los Angeles Times that Mr. Spielberg’s counterclaim that he never read the manuscript himself is immaterial given that Amblin executives had studied it.
Ms. Chase-Riboud insists that it is hardly a coincidence that the movie, like her book, imagines a close friendship between Cinque and former President John Quincy Adams; that the movie shares with her novel a fictional main character, a wealthy black print-shop owner (played in Amistad by Morgan Freeman); and that an early version of the shooting script for the movie she obtained was titled “The Other Lion.” “Nowhere else was ‘lion’ ever used in relationship to Cinque or the incident” other than in her novel, she said.
Dreamworks has repeatedly insisted that the Amistad project was the idea of actress Debbie Allen, who approached the fledgling studio with it a year and half ago and has a producer’s credit on the movie along with a small role. Ms. Allen said that, in fact, she approached Dreamworks three years ago with an idea she’d had since 1978, when she first learned about the Amistad Incident; she had been trying to interest studios in a two-page treatment of hers since 1984, she added, when she optioned another book titled Black Mutiny . “I did not know about Barbara Chase-Riboud’s book until last December, because one of my researchers brought it to my attention,” she said. “Before I could read it, this situation [the lawsuit] had arisen, and I was asked not to read it.” When asked about the many similarities between Echo of Lions and Amistad , Ms. Allen said, “It’s hard for me to respond. But her [Ms. Chase-Riboud’s] claims will be found not to have merit.”
Ms. Chase-Riboud now suspects that the filmmakers may have gone so far as to “throw away part of what they stole in the first place to cover their tracks,” she said. Echo of Lions , she explained, ended with Cinque making his way back to his home in Sierra Leone, only to discover that his family had been taken captive and sold into slavery; he decides to return to the country of his ordeal to find them. “We leave him standing on the beach, emitting a great wail,” she said, “which travels across the Atlantic Ocean and down the coast of the United States, to Gettysburg.” According to Ms. Chase-Riboud’s lawsuit, the shooting script had an eerily similar ending: a Mende woman standing on a beach, sending her cry out over the Atlantic to a Civil War battleground. “That ending has been cut from the novelization of Amistad and, as far as I know, from the movie,” she said. “So they destroyed in their wake the intellectual property of someone else.” Anne McGrath, head of publishing at Dreamworks, confirmed that the movie, like the novelization, has a completely new ending.
The novelization itself came as a surprise, Ms. Chase-Riboud said. When she and her lawyers met with Dreamworks in an attempt to settle their complaints amicably rather than file suit, “the Dreamworks people swore to us on the heads of their children-and Steven Spielberg has two black sons, as do I-that there wasn’t going to be a novelization,” she said. Needless to say, she was not happy when she found out that Signet, the paperback imprint of Penguin Putnam Inc., has already published Amistad , a novelization of the movie, with eight pages of color photos from the film. The novelization, written by Alexs Pate, a creative-writing teacher at Macalester College in Minnesota, has another problem. The cover carries the names of the two screenwriters originally credited on the film, Steven Zaillian and David Franzoni. But during the week of Oct. 27, the Writers Guild of America ruled in arbitration that Mr. Franzoni was entitled to sole screenwriting credit.
The controversies surrounding Amistad have also set off a dispute in the African-American intellectual and publishing communities about what constitutes acceptable work for publication. When confronted with her claims, Ms. Chase-Riboud said, Dreamworks, which had enlisted a number of scholarly consultants for the movie, “cast around … for a book they could say the movie was based on until they finally came up with Black Mutiny .” Black Mutiny was written by a white folklorist and historian named William A. Owens in 1953, but has not been reissued since 1968. Now, as an unofficial tie-in to the movie, Penguin Putnam’s Plume paperback division has put out a new edition (blurbing it as “A Key Historical Reference for the Major Motion Picture Amistad “) and Black Classic Press in Baltimore is publishing it in hardcover this month, with specially commissioned introductory essays by prominent African-American academics Derek Bell and Michael Eric Dyson.
The Black Classic reprint, undertaken by founder Paul Coates, particularly sticks in Ms. Chase-Riboud’s craw. “It’s a terrible excuse for a book and is filled with racial slurs,” she said. “I sent just two pages [of Black Mutiny ] to Dreamworks, saying, ‘You can’t come out in 1997 hiding behind a book like this.’ And if someone publishes Black Mutiny without making appropriate changes, I will sue. All I can say is, Paul Coates was warned.”
Mr. Coates counters that his presentation puts Black Mutiny in historical context. “Any book written in 1953 reflects the racial bias of its time,” he said. “But the writer was trying to give a balanced account.… If you compare it in light of having come out even before Brown v. Board of Education, it was a progressive book. If this book was a racist tract, we would have approached it as such.”
In the meantime, Ms. Chase-Riboud has been unable to interest a single publisher in reissuing Echo of Lions . “It’s too bad,” said Lisa Queen, subsidiary rights director of William Morrow, where rights to the book reverted to the author years ago. “It was an excellent book, it just didn’t sell very well.”