My interview with Michael Apted, director of "Amazing Grace," is in today's Chicago Tribune. Here's an unedited version:
Fifty-four years before the fight to end slavery in the United States led to the Civil War, England voted to abolish it, due to the pioneering leadership of a young Member of Parliament named William Wilberforce. His persistence in bringing the issue before the legislators for 18 years and his insistence that slavery was a violation of core human rights was grounded in his religious beliefs. He was also influenced by his friendship with John Newton, a former slave ship captain whose song, "Amazing Grace," described his own conversion and repentance.
Wilberforce has been a long-time inspiration to evangelical Christians for his belief that he was called upon by God to achieve social reforms. And he has been a long-time inspiration to politicians for his innovation in using the support of the voting public to put pressure on his fellow legislators. Now his story has inspired director Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter," the "Up" series of documentaries) to make “Amazing Grace,” a movie about Wilberforce and the British abolitionist movement. Apted spoke about the film in an interview.
Why was the progress toward abolishing slavery so different in the US and the UK?
Slavery didn't touch people in England directly the way it did in America. It wasn't in front of their faces. There were only 5000 slaves in London at the time of the film and they were domestic servants, and so were a lot of white domestic indentured servants, so it wasn't quite the cultural extravaganza that it was here.
Why is this story important to you?
For years I have wanted to make a film about how important politics and involvement in politics are in society. I think the general public today has become so disillusioned and indifferent to politics that all sorts of things can go on without anyone knowing it. It’s an environment where political self-interest can flourish because people aren’t interested. This was my attempt to make a film where politics is perceived as not necessarily heroic but as the messenger of good things and not corruption and secrecy.
In all my films, what draws me is always character, always relationships. That makes it easier to tell a story, even if it is not a romantic relationship. This one has two love stories, Wilberforce and his wife and Wilberforce and William Pitt, the Prime Minister. In some ways, the Pitt-Wilberforce relationship is even more touching than the other one.
One fascinating point made by the film is the way the tactics and arguments are so much like those raised in today’s political debates.
The Slave Trade Act was the first legislation supported by public opinion, petitions and such. My point was that this was the beginning of having to win hearts and minds to achieve political ends.
In a film you have to have heroes and villains, but in this film the villains have reasonable arguments. [They ask] “Without the sugar trade – today it would be without the oil industry – where would we be?” Pitt makes the point that is absolutely 9/11 – he says that the world is falling apart because we are at war and so Wilberforce’s issues are no longer important because we all have to devote ourselves to fighting the great enemy: “If you do not join us, you are disloyal.” In a sense that argument has to be put by the villain. Pitt, who is not a villain, who supports Wilberforce, makes exactly the arguments Bush and Cheney were putting forward after 9/11. What I like about it is that there is a big gray area here.
How do you avoid making a movie about centuries-old legislative debates stagy?
You have to think in the back of your head “This is happening now.” And you shoot it in such a way that it is not very statuesque and proscenium arch and historical artifact. You try and grub it up a bit, I suppose, but the main thing is to create an emotional involvement with the story. One of my big selling points with the studio was that we could have this marvelous true love story. In most movies the women are there in the story to say, “Don’t do it.” Here was a love story where she kicked his fat ass up in the air and said, “Get on with it,” and that was true, she did do that. To find a love story that was so dramatic and moved the story forward, that was too much to resist.