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“Amazing Grace” film criticised for ‘prettifying’ horror of slave trade

A film about the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire 200 years ago has been condemned by some black leaders for reducing the suffering of enslaved Africans to "a mere bit part".

Lee Jasper, the equalities adviser to the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has accused Michael Apted, director of "Amazing Grace", of "prettifying" the horror of the slave trade. It does this, he said, by focusing too much on William Wilberforce and his parliamentary struggle which led to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on 24 March 1807.

The film is scheduled for release on 23 March, the day before the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, leads a march across London to apologise for the Church’s role in the trade as well as to draw attention to modern-day forms of slavery.

Speaking as secretary of the Assembly Against Racism, Jasper said: "This film prettifies the tragedy, the horror and the brutality of the slave trade. It gives the impression that one man [the Member of Parliament for Hull in 1780, William Wilberforce] freed millions of slaves and it negates the contribution of the enslaved Africans to their own freedom to a bit part."

Youssou N’Dour, the Grammy-winning Senegalese singer, is one of the few black people in "Amazing Grace". He plays the part of Olaudah Equiano, an African slave who was sent to the colonies but who was able to buy his freedom. He had been captured with other Ibo tribesmen in what is now south-east Nigeria and sold to traders for 172 shells.

Richard Reddie, project director of a publicity campaign supported by the (Anglican) Church of England to mark the anniversary of the trade’s abolition, said many black people in Britain felt the film misrepresented history.

"We want people to reflect and respond to the brutality of the slave trade and remember the role played by men like Olaudah Equiano as well as William Wilberforce," he told Ecumenical News International.

A report in "The Times" newspaper in London said the row threatened to cast a shadow over the abolition bicentennial commemorations.

"I’m pleased the abolition is being marked," a social historian on Africa, Terence Ranger, told ENI from Oxford University. "But we need to look at abolitionist movements in other European countries and we also need to look at the effect of resistance by slaves themselves in the Caribbean and elsewhere to provide a very much more complete picture of the abolition."

(c) Ecumenical News International