A new film called Amazing Grace, opening today, marks the bicentennial of the end of slavery in Britain, portraying the British abolitionist movement as led by activist and Member of Parliament William Wilberforce. In conjunction with the movie, Bristol Bay Productions has launched the Amazing Change campaign in an effort to raise people’s awareness about the continuing existence of slavery and build a movement of 21st century abolitionists “to complete William Wilberforce’s unfinished work.”
There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today and at least 10,000 in the United States–144 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 200 years after Britain ended its participation in the slave trade. In contrast, there were approximately 15 million people enslaved during 150 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“Anything that brings awareness to slavery in history of the present is positive,” says Eric Foner, the leading historian on post-Civil War reconstruction. “If people fighting slavery today identify with the abolitionists, that’s good.”
There is little doubt that this film will have some of the common pitfalls of any Hollywood biopic. Indeed, reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post have called it “prettified”, “an imperfect look at an imperfect soul”, and “earnest to a fault.” But reviewers have also noted the compelling political, moral, and educational aspects of the film, as well as some brilliant performances by great British actors.
Christopher Brown, professor of history at Rutgers University and author of Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, anticipates some of these strengths and weaknesses in the movie: “There is a danger that the abolition of the British slave trade will be reduced to the heroism of one individual and, arguably, not the most important individual. Thomas Clarkson, for example, was absolutely essential to this history too. And the accomplishment of abolition in 1807 had as much to do with Britain’s mastery of the sea lanes during the long wars with Napoleonic France. Still, I am glad this subject comes to public attention through this important bicentennial. In the United States, we don’t learn enough about the history of slavery and the slave trade outside of our national borders, nor do we often realize the history, character, and importance of antislavery movements outside of the British Isles.”
The contemporary anti-slavery campaign–Amazing Change–will produce some unlikely bedfellows. Philip F. Anschutz, who has ties to the conservative Christian right, owns Bristol Bay Productions. But it’s worth remembering that the role religion played in the work of abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries was striking, and there are historic ties between the religious community and progressives. (In fact, The Nation was founded by American abolitionists). The Amazing Change campaign is trying to match Wilberforce’s astounding achievement by collecting 390,000 signatures on its own petition to end modern slavery.
The organization says petitions will be presented to government officials around the world to “demonstrate our desire to see the emancipation of slaves and accountability for slave masters and others who benefit from the enslavement of people.”
If the film sparks a wider movement to end contemporary slavery, any artistic shortcomings or historical inaccuracies will pale in comparison to its achievement.
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