Several films in recent memory have portrayed the political sphere’s work in the abolition and emancipation of slaves in Europe and the Americas. Amazing Grace, a 2006 film that was wide-released in conjunction with the bicentennial anniversary with the British parliament’s passage of the vote to ban the slave trade, and Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, which focuses on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, are two notable examples. Both biopics, focusing on William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln respectively, have similar elements — a representative body grappling with morality, a call to sentiment, a nod to the world stage, and a hero will refuses to give up on his convictions. Furthermore, Amazing Grace and Lincoln have both been lauded by critics for cast performances, and Spielberg’s film attracted Academy Award nominations and wins. Both trailers, as embed here, show similar elements to each film, despite being six years apart in release.
IGN, for example, reviewed Amazing Grace, comparing it to Spieberg’s 1997 film Amistad, saying this is the film “Amistad should have been:”
Amazing Grace thoughtfully explores the issue of slavery (and the politics and economics that contributed to it) without sermonizing or losing sight of the fact that modern audiences still need to connect with relatable characters no matter how important the subject matter.[i]
A.O. Scott, a critic for The New York Times, stated of Lincoln, “Mr. Spielberg writes history with lightning” and gave the film an overall positive review.
The film places slavery at the center of the story, emphatically countering the revisionist tendency to see some other, more abstract thing — states’ rights, Southern culture, industrial capitalism — as the real cause of the Civil War. Though most of the characters are white (two notable and vital exceptions are Stephen Henderson and Gloria Reuben, as the Lincolns’ household servants), this is finally a movie about how difficult and costly it has been for the United States to recognize the full and equal humanity of black people.”[ii]
But both films have historical inaccuracies and have received criticism in the same vein of both films carrying the message that “white heroes save blacks from oppression.”
Scholar Lars Eckstein, for example, argues that William Wilberforce is credited by Amazing Grace as single-handedly leading the abolition movement, which negates the contributions of Africans to their own freedom:
[This] points to a major ethical problem, namely the danger of belittling the immensity of historical suffering in filmic depctions. Amazing Grace, however, does not really provide much stuff for discussion here, as Apted shies away from actually picturing the sordid details of the slave trade in the first place-there are verbal reports and references to slave ships, yet there is no visual representation; in fact, there are hardly any black people in the film, one notable exception being Olaudah Equiano (played by Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour). British filmmakers have to this day, to my knowledge, avoided the political and ethical complexities of explicitly picturing Atlantic slavery..”[iii]
Brycchan Carey takes this criticism further:
This Hollywood movie [Amazing Grace] has been roundly – and rightly – excoriated by critics both for reviving the wholly discredited version of history that casts Wilberforce as a saintly hero, and for errors of historical fact so numerous that they make Pirates of the Caribbean– a film about the eighteenth-century Caribbean in which no slaves appear – seem like a school textbook in comparison.”[iv]
More interestingly, Emma Waterton, Laurajane Smith, Ross Wilson, and Kalliopi Fouseki focus on Britain’s acts of commemorating the Abolition Act of 1807. In their analysis of popular culture, focusing heavily on Amazing Grace, the critics reach the conclusion the effects of these forms of remembrance are more negative than positive:
Significantly, this telling of a story about abolition and Wilberforce foregrounds a set of widely self-assumed positive qualities of British identity, while simultaneously downplaying its more negative and traumatic aspects. The consequence [..] creates a blank spot in the cultural memory of Britain, as trauma and brutality are conveniently forgotten. Forgetfulness such as this significantly affects Britain’s ability to reflect, collectively and self-consciously, on both its past and its present. This is particularly apparent when considering the inheritance of residual racism, and a raft of associated social and political problems, which are the legacies of Britain’s pre-eminent role in the enslavement of African people. The consequence is that diversity, in both the past and the present, is delegitimized, with focus deflected away from the negotiation of trauma, and the moral and ethical questions this poses in the present.”[v]
Lincoln, as well, has been questioned in its depiction of the “white heroes” and portrayal of the blacks (or the lack thereof).
Critic John M. Belohlavek, discussing the historical accuracy of Lincoln, calls into question his portrayal by Spielberg:
Yet director Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster film Lincoln crafts a worthy, if flawed, effort to walk the American people down the rocky road of emancipation. This cinematic moment has contributed to the long-standing controversy that exists in the academic community and periodically within popular culture over Lincoln’s role as a champion of African Americans. Focusing upon the last months of the Civil War, Spielberg represents those dedicated to the notion that the “Man from Springfield” weighed into the cause of blacks with moral passion and caring determination. Many scholars would demur, arguing that Lincoln, throughout the war, was motivated more by pragmatism than morality in charting his course from emancipation to amendment.”[vi]
Matthew W. Hughey, writing for the journal of Humanity and Society, states Lincoln ends where the real work begins — selective enforcement of the amendment, Black Codes, ect.
In the end [Lincoln] reproduce[s] a message similar to, rather than a departure from, films like Gone with the Wind (1939) or Glory (1989). It promulgates the “Great Man” theory of racial history—white men are the primary liberators of passive, silent, and nonwhite objects, in so long as emancipatory actions do not conflict with the de facto social order.”[vii]
But, perhaps most obviously, figures such as Frederick Douglass have been left out of Lincoln and the African-American characters in the film are short-changed. (Lydia Hamilton Smith and Elizabeth Keckley were a business woman and a political/philanthropic leader, respectively). In the film, both stand on the (sometimes literal) sidelines as white men debate the future of blacks. Michael Shank, writing for The Washington Post, said on Douglass’s absence:
What a missed opportunity to educate American audiences about the myriad black leaders that inspired, instigated and were involved in Lincoln’s leadership on the issue of civil rights. […] Spielberg and Kushner wanted to keep the film a favorable treatise on Lincoln’s civil rights leadership and forego the Lincoln that Douglass described as “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.”[viii]
These criticisms of both films, relating to the portrayal of Wilberforce/Lincoln and the lack of black characters, are fair and valid. For the audience members who do not study Black Atlantic history in detail, hypothetically the majority, these films do add to U.S./centralistic views of history. This has followed the traditional line of how history has been presented —Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists were credited in 19th-century America by the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass as having achieved a great deal. [ix]
But, for all that Lincoln got wrong, many historians praised that it did get a lot right. And, unlike the other 2012 film following the American president, slavery and the Civil War turned into a popcorn film. In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, vampires use slaves for food, and therefore, the circulation of slave and the institution of plantations actually protects the United States. Instead of tackling the complex arguments for/against the emancipation of slaves, Vampire Hunter uses a simple good/evil dichotomy by employing vampires as those for slavery and uses slaves as a plot point. (But did anyone expect anything better from a summer popcorn flick that turns the Civil War into a vampire v. humans showdown?) Fredrick Douglass does not appear in this film either; however, a large role for William Johnson (Lincoln’s valet) plays heavily in the film and there is a moment where ex-slaves “save the day” by transporting weapons to Union soldiers. But of course, Vampire Hunter seems to have more in common with Django Unchained than a biopic. In some ways, that is, it is more about slavery than Lincoln, but it also, in a way, disavows the human race of being responsible for slavery by implicating the vampires as the reason for its perpetuation.
What Lincoln does achieve, however unoriginally, is two-fold: it inspires audience members to further research history and sparks conversation about the portrayals in the film. After all, the film does run 150 minutes, and many scenes and months of 1865 were cut for time. This is not to defend Douglass’s absence or the passive way in which Keckley and Smith are portrayed, but it does open up the possibilities for interest in the 1860s. Could a biopic featuring a person such as Douglass gain traction soon? With the explosion of films portraying issues of segregation and slavery, one can hope.
Amazing Grace, while it lacks the production value of Lincoln, nevertheless is the more interesting film.
Yes, Wilberforce and members of parliament such as Charles James Fox receive much of the focus. But, at the same time, the film does more than gesture at the idea of the “people.”
According to Jürgen Habermas, in the 18th-century, the idea of the public sphere came into fruition. He states:
“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in debate […] this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people’s use of their reason ”[x]
And that’s what we have a representation of in this film. Instead of Keckley standing in the gallery, hoping that the amendment to the Constitution passes, we get active members of the public influencing others but also engaging with public authorities such as Wilberforce. Petitions and public boycotts demonstrate the abolitionist effort in the film. And, although not many people of African descent are featured, Olaudah Equiano appears for more than a cameo, which Lincoln could not even give to Douglass.
Equiano describes the horrors of slavery in the film to Wilberforce, describing both how female slaves were hung by their ankles and how the sickest of the slaves are thrown overboard if necessary. These descriptions allude to the trials of John Kimber, a man put on the trial for murders of slaves that Wilberforce spoken about in Parliament, and the Zong, where 142 slaves on the ship were massacred. Both of these incidents became important to the abolitionist cause, and Thomas Clarkson (an abolitionist given focus in the film) wrote about the Zong in his literature.
Equiano’s Interesting Narrative also receives screen time, and William Pitt states that there are those would claim that Equiano was “born in North Carolina.” The controversy of Equiano’s birth did occur, which led him to publish accounts to corroborate his book in later editions, and scholars still debate whether Equiano was born in Africa or not. In other words, Equiano is seen actively working toward the abolitionist cause through his work in the public, not just sitting passively by while Wilberforce single-handedly changes each member of Parliament’s mind. Even after Equiano’s death in the film, his memory carries on and the film continues to memorialize his memory.
Other abolitionists featured include Hannah More, Thomas Clarkson, and James Stephen. Although More does not feature heavily in the film, her work shown and through her appearance more generally, women’s work for the abolitionist cause is acknowledged. In many biopics featuring political changes, women and minorities tend to be placed on the sidelines. This film offers a stark contrast to that, showing how those outside the political sphere (which was not large due to the small percentage of the British population that could vote and the smaller percentage of the population making decisions) could help enact change.
The film, unlike many others that take up the issues of race, history, or even inequality more broadly, recognizes that ending the slave trade does not mean freedom for all. Clarkson notes that there are more injustices in the world, including the conditions of the lower classes. He notes the French Revolution and believes it will spread to England, a notion which Wilberforce refuses to engage. This does show, however, that the abolitionists disagreed at times on how to pursue their aim. The clash between Clarkson and Wilberforce shows differing viewpoints on how to tackle these issues. Of course, more prominence could have been given to the historical slave revolts in British territories. As professor of history Cathy Schutlz said:
And slaves themselves deserve some credit. By revolting on British plantations in Jamaica and Barbados, they forced the British public to confront the brutality of slavery and the slave trade.”[xi]
But, on the other hand, Wilberforce discusses “the revolution in Haiti” momentarily. No matter how briefly and anachronistically this reference is, the fact remains that this film realizes the importance of the global trends had toward realizing the abolition cause’s goal. That is, sentiment does not get all of the credit here. Although the filmmakers acknowledge the power sentiment had to swaying public feeling to the abolitionist cause, they also show that economics, politics (both local and global), and the actions of slave abroad themselves played a role in Wilberforce finally achieving his goal.
There are, of course, better decisions the filmmakers could have made to preserve history and give more narrative time to others who gave just as much to the cause. But considering the film spends 118 minutes telling its story, which spans from 1782 to 1807, the time they spend on figures like Equiano and the Haitian Revolution are quite surprising. This is a British-political view of the abolitionist cause, told from the viewpoint of a prominent member of Parliament. Hopefully, this could open the door for other films to be made that capture other experiences from multiple perspectives.
The trend to continue making these “historical” films continues, after all. A new British drama, Belle (2013), follows the historical character of Dido Elizabeth Belle — a mixed race daughter of a naval captain raised by her uncle. Although the film is largely fictional, it grapples with the Zong massacre and race in the 18th-century.
Perhaps, most importantly, these films will be in conversation with one another and drive audiences to face these issues, perhaps developing a “multi-cultural literacy.” In other words, these imaginary representations may fuel a vocabulary that very much shapes how we look at and encounter reality. Through these films, we encounter issues we may not have thought still relevant, cultures different from our own, and the hope that these discussions will continue.
[v] Waterton, Emma, et al. “Forgetting To Heal Remembering The Abolition Act Of 1807.” European Journal Of English Studies 14.1 (2010): 23-36. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
[x] Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. 12th ed. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001. Print.
How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/