For `Grace' director Apted, politics were paramount

February 25, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun Reporter

Michael Apted sits in a posh, sunlit Washington hotel room discussing his film Amazing Grace, which opened this weekend, anticipating what questions may arise out of his approach to the 19th-century abolitionist tale. Surely, he believes, some detractors are bound to ask: Why make a film about Britain's slave trade in Africa with virtually no slavery scenes and only one black main character?

"I'll have to eat that," says Apted, who says he's also braced for those who will scoff at his nearly all-English cast, with few box-office notables.

By now, he's accustomed to it: His vision for telling the story of British abolitionist William Wilberforce countered that of the film's producers, yet he stuck to it.

You can do that when you're one of the most accomplished filmmakers in cinema history, the man who wove compelling tales of endearing characters in such films as Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park and Gorillas in the Mist.

Amazing Grace, Apted says, is not unlike his other creations, which often depict a character whose life is a struggle and who endures disappointment and soul-searching in pursuit of a passion.

This story is woven around the triumphs and struggles of Wilberforce, a young, upstart Member of Parliament who leads Britain's end to the slave trade in 1807. It features his relationship with slave trader turned clergyman John Newton, whose conversion led him to write the popular hymn, Amazing Grace.

Yet, Apted says, upon being hired to direct the film, he shifted its approach: He gave Wilberforce more breadth of character. And he illustrated the various strains of personality among some of the most powerful heads of Parliament - those whom Wilberforce needed to confront, en route to helping to end the slave trade.

"When I came into it, it was a biopic, and it was very much weighed toward Wilberforce's religion," says Apted. "It was about the slave trade from beginning to end. I thought his life was more interesting than that."

The film opened in Britain and the United States last week in celebration of the life of Wilberforce and the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the slave trade.

In many ways, it is Apted's contribution to the commemoration: He focused not on slavery itself, but on the political tempest and breakthroughs that led to its downfall.

He says he wants the film to be a testament to the political process, how outcries for justice can alter the course of history.

"One of the things that intrigued me about it was a kind of [John F.] Kennedy story, a Camelot story, of young people taking on the establishment," says Apted. "What I want people to take from it, and this is very ambitious for me, is the importance of political discussion - how politics should and must be for good.

"It can't become an object for contempt or an object of indifference. When people are indifferent about politics, it's incredibly dangerous, because it allows politics to go haywire."

That's why, he says, he opted against many slavery scenes in the film. The film takes place for the most part in England, and unlike the U.S., many of its slave plantations were on distant colonies rather than on its own soil.

"I didn't want to do stuff on plantations, on the high seas," says Apted. "I think it had been done a lot and I didn't have enough money to do it properly. I was interested in the politics of it all, the corridors of power and the political wheeling and dealings."

The film's one black character was abolitionist and author Olaudah Equiano, who advises Wilberforce. Equiano stands out as a self-assured former slave in a mostly white British high society, coming face to face with some who were likely responsible for his past enslavement.

Apted says it took considerable time finding the actor who could exhibit Equiano's character. In doing so, he again countered convention, choosing not an actor but renowned Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour.

"You can't buy that kind of presence that Youssou N'Dour has, and he's never acted before," says Apted. "It was a tremendous leap for him and for me. "

The director also insisted on filming in England and casting English actors for the other lead roles. Nothing against American actors, he says, but, "it's a British story. It's a very important story and a great period in British history, and I didn't want to kind of diminish it by making compromises.

"Not that casting Americans in British roles can be ... I'm sure people have done it well. But I think it was a great event in British history and I wanted to do it with British actors."

While Amazing Grace is being released in Britain as part of the anti-slave-trade movement commemorations, in the U.S. it's being used as a means of calling attention to the slavery that still exists worldwide.

In many parts of the country, the film has been screened among diverse audiences, and afterward spontaneous discussions have ensued about how the U.S. can heal the wounds created by its own slave trade.

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