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Britain's Slave Empire, as the Sun Set

February 18, 2007; New York Times; Britain's Slave Empire, as the Sun Set; By Alan Riding.

ON March 25, 1807, Britain ended its participation in the slave trade. The move hardly absolved the country of the sin of having shipped millions of Africans to the New World for sale as chattels. But it was nonetheless a rare point of light in one of the darkest chapters of human history, and it set in motion the gradual emancipation of slaves across the Americas.

Now, two centuries later, the story of how William Wilberforce and a handful of other Quaker activists persuaded a reluctant British Parliament to abolish the slave trade is retold in Michael Apted's new movie, "Amazing Grace," which will be released in the United States on Friday. It is a story of good versus evil in which, after endless setbacks, the world ends up a better place.

Yet the question remains: Can a film on such a weighty topic connect with today's filmgoers?

In Britain, where "Amazing Grace" is set to open next month, this should be possible: not so much because audiences are used to seeing British actors in whiskers and waistcoats re-enacting historical dramas, but because the British government is using the anniversary to promote high school courses, exhibitions and debates about the slave trade.

"You can't go anywhere in Britain without hearing about racism," Mr. Apted said. "I think people are ready for the film."

Elsewhere, however, 1807 is less significant. In the United States, for instance, the watershed date in the fight against slavery is of course Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Every country once involved in trafficking, importing or exploiting slaves — and there were at least a score — remembers its own moment of moral reawakening. And outside Britain, Wilberforce is hardly a household name.

Still, the makers of "Amazing Grace" say their movie raises broader issues.

For Steven Knight, the film's British screenwriter, public opinion was for the first time mobilized to press for social reform with the campaign for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In that sense the use of petitions (including one carrying 390,000 signatures), public meetings, books and pamphlets heralded the birth of modern democratic politics.

Mr. Apted saw an opportunity to emphasize the importance of politics, then and now. "I wanted to do a story about the corridors of power," he said by telephone from Washington, where he was promoting "Amazing Grace." "I am trying to shine a light on the value of politics."

For its part Bristol Bay Productions, which financed the $28 million production and favors, in its own words, "uplifting stories," is looking to communicate a more urgent message. Coinciding with the movie's release the company, owned by the American billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, has started a campaign called Amazing Change to raise awareness of the continuing existence of slavery around the world.

"An estimated 27 million people are living in slavery today," the company said in a press statement explaining Amazing Change. "It's hard to imagine, but there are more people living in slavery than at other times in history."

The movie's title is borrowed from the much-loved hymn written by John Newton, himself a former captain of a British slave trader who underwent a religious conversion and who later, as an evangelical minister, became a friend and adviser to Wilberforce.

Early in the movie the hymn is sung with fervor by Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) in a London club crowded with opponents of his new, and already sputtering, abolitionist campaign. The year is 1787, and the first anti-slave trade bill has just been defeated. A 20-year-long battle begins, and only Wilberforce's Christian faith will keep him going.

As it happens, Bristol Bay Productions initially wanted a biopic focused on Wilberforce's faith, "which is why I and a lot of other people didn't want to make it," Mr. Apted recalled. "I wanted to center the whole film on the anti-slave trade debate, and they agreed. To me it is about people who have a moral or religious sense of purpose and yet manage to operate in the world."

Mr. Knight ("Dirty Pretty Things"), who was brought into the project by Mr. Apted, said he had a special interest in late-18th-century Britain, a time when London was "the capital of the world" but was also being buffeted by unrest provoked first by the American Revolution, then by the French Revolution.

"You have to choose your stories," he added by telephone from Washington. "This particular story has an in-built Hollywood ending because, after so many years of campaigning, Wilberforce does win, and someone stands up in Parliament to say he is superior to Napoleon because he is peaceful, not warlike."

Inevitably then Wilberforce dominates the movie, but he has many allies, not only the prime minister, William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), but also fellow members of the so-called Clapham Sect, not least the wild radical Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell). The former slave trader John Newton (Albert Finney) also encourages him, while even the gruff, hard-to-persuade Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) eventually backs him in Parliament.

At home Wilberforce can also count on the steadfast support of his wife, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), who admired his work long before they met and married in 1797.

Much of the action takes place in country homes, private clubs and the House of Commons. But the reality of the slave trade is represented by Olaudah Equiano (played by the Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour), a freed slave whose autobiography was a best seller in Britain. In the movie it is thanks to Equiano that Wilberforce has the shocking experience of visiting a slave ship docked in London.

"There's a lot of compression, and we had to take some historical characters out," Mr. Apted said, "but it's pretty much all true, certainly in spirit and essence. His courtship, his relationship with Pitt, Newton's influence: all true. It had to be very accurate or else it would have lost its power."

The movie ends with the anti-slave-trade act of 1807, but the battle against slavery continued. Britain may have had solid economic reasons for using its navy to disrupt French, Spanish and Portuguese slave ships, but it took the next logical step of emancipating the slaves in its Caribbean colonies in August 1833, one month after Wilberforce's death. It was not until 1888 that Brazil freed its slaves.

It may seem a bit of a stretch to link "Amazing Grace" to today's continuing battle against slavery, but the practice still exists in parts of South America, Africa and China, not to mention in some European cities where prostitutes from Africa and Eastern Europe are trapped in forced unpaid labor.

And to those who see the Amazing Change campaign by Bristol Bay Productions as just a novel form of movie marketing, Mr. Knight had a sharp response: "I hope that cynics who watch the film will recognize their fellow cynics."

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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