Friday, February 23, 2007

Amazing Grace and Unfinished Business

Today marks the release of a movie about an extraordinary event and an extraordinary man. The movie is called "Amazing Grace." It tells the story of how the British parliament, moved by the force of will of one man, William Wilberforce, rose above narrow financial interest and achieved one of the greatest moral victories in the history of democratic governance – the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. In the wake of the passage of Wilberforce's bill, not only were British companies and seamen prohibited from participating in the trade, but soon the British Navy went out on a truly moral mission that arguably cut against Britain's economic self-interest to try to stop the Atlantic slave trade. (The US abolished the slave trade at roughly the same time, but unlike in the U.K. slavery continued in the country for almost 60 years.) The 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's triumph will be upon us on March 25. I do not really sense that it is getting the attention it deserves, and if ultimately it does not, lost amid all the coverage of the diaper-clad, lovesick astronaut and the sordid struggles over the dead Playmate, it will be an immense shame.

Wilberforce was an intensely religious man, motivated purely by religious faith to end what he thought was a Christian disgrace. Indeed the song after which the movie is named tells the story of a former slave-ship captain who "once was lost, but now am found" and ended his participation in that wretched business. John Wesley a Methodist leader after whom colleges are named all over the U.S., wrote Wilberforce and called slavery "that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature." It is thus a little bit lamentable, if this story and this one are to be believed, that Michael Apted, the movie's director, intentionally downplayed the religious aspect of the battle in favor of emphasizing how politics can achieve great things. From the International Herald Tribune:

Apted, whose recent credits include "Enigma," in turn saw an opportunity to emphasize the importance of politics, then and now. "I wanted to do a story about the corridors of power," he explained. "I am trying to shine a light on the value of politics."

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," 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."

The victory, the result of a 20-your struggle (the first anti-slavery Bill was filed in 1787, and another version lost in 1796 by only four votes), was clearly partly about politics. But it is manifest revisionism to ignore the role of religious principles in achieving this great victory. Had Britain not been the Mother of Parliaments, the traffic would not have been abolished; nor would it have been if Britain were only a democratic nation and not a Christian one. But it is certainly better that the movie be made this way than that it not be made at all.

What makes the movie and the anniversary so bittersweet is that the global slave traffic is still a gigantic phenomenon. In absolute numbers (although not as a percentage of the world population), there may be more people in bondage now than then. Estimates range from 4 million to 27 million people. Unquestionably the same lower transport costs that have brought so much prosperity to so many places has also made the slave trade easier. The U.S. State Department issues an annual report (go here for the most recent one) that tries to document the extent of the global slave trade. The most common kinds are trafficking in women for prostitution (which typically involves women from poorer countries being deceptively lured to wealthy ones in Europe, Japan and North America and being held captive thereafter), bonded labor in Africa and South Asia (extremely poor people incur debts and must work the rest of their days paying it off by making bricks or working plantations, with the debt sometimes even being passed on to their children), and workaday house slavery in several countries in northern Africa, especially Mauritania and Libya. This is far from an exhaustive list.

The global slave trade is the single greatest outrage in the world today, drawing tens of millions of people into its fatal whirlpool. The organization Antislavery International has numerous harrowing individual stories on the section of its website marked "Slavery Today," as does the introduction of the State Department report. Sadly, the traffic is not nearly as widely knows it should be. The Google toolbar on my computer fills out the most common searches that finish an incomplete typing of the search I plan to do. When I type out "slavery," most of the common searches based on that term are about slavery in centuries past. Several years ago, in an address to the United Nations, President Bush made an explicit reference to modern slavery and called on the world to fight it. I was never prouder of an American president (I am 42 years old) than at that moment, and hoped that there would be aggressive follow-up. Since then, the State Department's annual report has become more prominent, and European nations in particular are working much harder to combat it within their borders, but I was disappointed that he did not continue to give the issue the prominence that only the president of the United States can lend. But the more rapidly word spreads, the more rapidly Wilberforce's mission will be completed.


I have now seen the movie. Any charge that the movie downplays Wilberforce's Christianity is misplaced, as it is obvious that that's what drives him. As for the film itself, some of the dialogue is wooden, and a fair amount of historical knowledge is taken for granted. But the issues it raises - evolution vs. revolution, the border between dissent and sedition, etc. - are interesting to this day.



Blogger AmandaLaine said...

Thank you for this post. It is a good reminder. I hope to watch the movie. And understand the situation better.

6:55 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home