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Author and Spielberg on same page

by Luis Mocete, Office of University Communications.

STORRS, Conn. -- Two years ago, David Pesci, a 1985 graduate of the University of Connecticut, finished writing about the Amistad slave rebellion. One year later, Steven Spielberg was considering filming a movie based on the same event. It was a match made in heaven.

Or at least it would have been, if only Pesci's agent had been able to get through to the right people at Spielberg's company, Dream Works, to offer them his novel, Amistad. As it turned it, neither Pesci nor his agent had the right friends in the right places, and Spielberg ended up basing the movie on a book by William Owens called Black Mutiny.

So this month will see two related but unconnected Amistad events. Spielberg will film his movie "Amistad" in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and Pesci, a University relations associate in UConn's Office of Communications, will be on a book tour to promote his first novel.

Both the book and movie have the same name and cover the same subject, but that's where the resemblance ends.

"People may confuse my book as the impetus for his movie," Pesci says. "If that happens, I hope people say, 'It was a great movie, but I liked the book better.' There is no resentment on my part."

Pesci began writing Amistad in spring 1994, when he came across a mention of the slave rebellion when he was researching another, yet unfinished book.

"I became so obsessed with the rebellion," he says, "that I decided to put down the novel I was writing at the time, so I could work on Amistad."

So there went the weekends, the evenings, the girlfriend and even cable television. Pesci put in more than 140 hours researching the topic, mostly at UConn's Homer Babbidge Library.

Both Pesci's and Spielberg's work are based on the story of Singbe-Pieh (also known as Cinque), who in 1839 staged a slave rebellion on board the ship Amistad. "What Singbe did was heroic," the author says. "We are in a society where that word is being overused. Just because someone shoots a basketball or is in a movie does not make them a hero. To me a hero has always been a common person who is put in an uncommon situation and rises above that ... and Singbe did just that."

The slaves were able to take control of the ship and sought to return to Africa by sailing the ship east into the rising sun. But they were tricked by their captives and instead headed northward, ending up off the U.S. coast two months later. They were captured by the U.S. Navy and taken to Connecticut, where in 1839 slavery was still legal. The slaves stood trial and were represented by former President John Quincy Adams before the Supreme Court.

"This event is one of the most unknown in U.S. history," Pesci says. "It's an incredible story because in a time when slavery, racism and white supremacy were part of our laws, the slaves were still able to get a fair trial in the American justice system. This is not only an important piece of black history, but it's an important piece of American history as well."

That is why it's no surprise to Pesci that Spielberg has decided to shoot the movie. "I'm sure he saw in this story what I saw ... it is very compelling. When you look at the 350 years of slavery in the Western hemisphere, it is like a 350-year-long holocaust. There are certain similarities like families being torn apart and never seeing their homes again."