The promotion of the new film "Amazing Grace: The Story of William Wilberforce" looks a lot like social activism, what with its fundraising for human rights groups, a petition drive, screenings for members of Congress, large-scale days of prayer in the U.S. and England, even high school history lessons and church sermons. In fact, the sales pitch and the goodwill are so intertwined here that it's hard to know where one ends and the other begins. And maybe that's the point.
Bristol Bay Productions executives bristle at the term "marketing." They say their movie is an altruistic effort for social change and to honor the life of Wilberforce, a British pioneer in political activism and one of Abraham Lincoln's role models. That's why the release was timed around the 200th anniversary (on March 25) of Wilberforce's success in ending the slave trade in Britain. It's also the reason Bristol Bay staffers spent months traveling the country, reaching out to activist organizations and screening the movie for people and groups as disparate as evangelical Christians and animal rights activists.
The film, directed by Michael Apted and starring Ioan Gruffudd and Albert Finney, opens today. Organizers of the "Amazing Change" campaign expect the release to boost awareness of social activism and increase donations to groups working to abolish the modern slave trade in such areas as South Asia and Africa. But interest has been building for weeks, primarily through four websites. More recently, the film has gotten decent reviews from mainstream media and family- and faith-based outlets, including the influential Heartland Film Festival and the Dove Foundation.
Clearly, the movie is helped by the fact that Wilberforce was such a unifying personality with appeal that bridged race, politics and religion. He was an evangelical Christian who founded more than 60 nonprofits, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In his work to abolish slavery, Wilberforce inspired change by means that are still used today, with petition drives, slogans and boycotts.
"I don't know of another film that brings together as many different causes and elements as this one does," said Dick Rolfe, chief executive of the Dove Foundation.
Naturally, the varied groups that are drawn to the film disagree on some key points, which has prompted a lively exchange on AmazingGraceMovie.com's message board. Conservatives have been facing off with liberals all month, bickering over what makes the film such an inspiration. Is it Wilberforce's religion? Or his relentless drive to see all people treated equally? This is the kind of controversy that makes a film publicist happy to be alive.
The Christian community has embraced "Amazing Grace." More than 5,000 churches in the U.S. and Canada signed up online to participate in a mass prayer last Sunday. They used prayer guides, church bulletins and "Amazing Grace" sheet music provided online by Bristol Bay and its sister company Walden Media. Another prayer day is scheduled in Britain in March to coincide with the film's release there.
Meanwhile, activist groups that often toil in obscurity have jumped at the chance to be associated with a major motion picture about one of their heroes. Seventy-five organizations are already linked to the movie website, and dozens more are waiting to be added. Four key groups -- ChildVoice International, which helps children from war-torn areas; Free the Slaves, Rugmark, which works to end child labor in the carpet industry; and International Justice Mission, which rescues victims of violence and slavery -- were selected by Bristol Bay to divide 25% of the funds raised by the campaign. The rest will go to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the U.S. State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking People and other groups.
The goal of the petition drive is to gather 390,000 signatures on a petition to abolish modern slavery, the same number Wilberforce gathered 200 years ago, and present it to Congress next month. So far, about 49,700 people have signed.
Meantime, student abolitionist and author Zach Hunter has helped promote the campaign by speaking to about 400,000 people on a tour. And journalist David Batstone is donating a portion of the sales of "Not for Sale," his book about modern abolitionists, to the Amazing Change Fund.
Ultimately, the campaign represents a massive effort on the part of Bristol Bay and Walden Media. But executives insist this is an "organic" movement they have nudged along.
"People generally want to help; they just don't know where to go," said Penny Hunter, the Atlanta-based director of Amazing Change Campaign. "We're hoping we'll give people a place to go to roll up their sleeves and help."