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Steering between the two myths

21 March 2007

Does Hollywood’s take on Wilberforce get it right? Almost, says Stephen Tomkins

THERE are all kinds of problems with trying to bring the 18th century back to life on the cinema screen, but here is one I hadn’t foreseen. The climax of Amazing Grace (Cert. PG) is, naturally, the 1807 Parliamentary debate, where, after 20 years of apparently hopeless struggle, the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was finally passed. There is little serious debate in the scene: MPs celebrate and praise Wilberforce’s work, and end up rising to their feet one by one to applaud him.

It looks like a typical Hollywood version of history, but it fact it is the opposite: the director, Michael Apted, has had to tone it down. In reality, the debate was merely a fight between MPs to pay tribute to Wilberforce. Not only did he get the only Parliamentary three cheers in living memory, but he sat through it all with tears running down his face. Evidently, Hollywood has so debased its emotional currency that if you put such a display on the screen, no one would believe it.

Wilberforce’s marriage has a similar fate in the film. It is presented as a whirlwind love match with a gorgeous young woman (Romola Garai ideally cast as Barbara Spooner). But the only liberties the film takes here are to understate just how quick it was, how shocked his friends were, and how much he was driven by what I shall euphemistically call his “heart”.

In all, the film deals sensitively and respectfully with its story — though whether it has done justice to its drama is another matter. It has reverence and admiration for Wilberforce, telling his story from his conversion, through two decades of campaigning, to the abolition of the slave trade. It gives full credit to his religious commitment, too, and portrays it with a maturity and balance that show how far Hollywood and US churches have been reconciled since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

The film is clearly made with one eye on the churches that block-booked cinemas for The Passion; but not all of them have welcomed it. As the Church Times reported on 2 March, some black church leaders have complained that the film “prettifies” the slave trade. Lee Jasper, the secretary of the Assembly Against Racism, said: “It seeks to give the impression that one man freed millions of slaves, and negates the contribution of the enslaved Africans to their own freedom to a bit part.”

While there is some truth in this complaint, I think it misses the mark. There are two myths to steer one’s way between here, and the film does so. The traditional one is that Wilberforce fought the slave trade more or less single-handedly, whereas in fact he was part of a large team of campaigners including clergy, Quakers, MPs, and a former slave. The film gives speaking parts to no fewer than ten of them, which is at least as many as viewers can be expected to keep track of.

More recently, in response, it has become common to hear that the end of the slave trade should not be credited to any British abolitionists, because it was largely the work of the enslaved Africans themselves. This is as untrue as the first myth. Slave revolts did indeed play a vital part in the abolition of slavery itself 25 years later, but not in the slave-trade campaign.

There were some risings in British plantations in these years, and they should be remembered, but there were only a few, and they did not have a measurable impact on the success of the campaign. They certainly do not negate the work of abolitionists. We must also remember that some former slaves played important parts in the campaign, notably Olaudah Equiano — but the film recognises this. Equiano is played by the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour.

Still, there is something unsatisfying about the way in which the film so restricts its field of vision to the campaign in Britain, to the exclusion of the trade itself, in Africa and across the Atlantic, and to the exclusion of plantation life. In fact, we are given little sense of what the slave trade actually was. The unparalleled brutality and unprescribed violence of it, the dehumanisation and destruction of millions, the devastating effect on west Africa — this is missing. And without it we are left with an impression of the abolitionists as a bunch of good eggs, giving their time to a worthy cause.

It doesn’t prettify the slave trade, but it does fail to show just how ugly it was. As a result, it does not entirely do justice to the crime that was committed against the African people, and it does not do justice to the achievement of the abolitionists in stopping it.

On general release.

Stephen Tomkins is the author of William Wilberforce: A biography, reviewed on page 28.

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