In the 1700s, when a small band of English activists founded an audacious campaign to end slavery, a pottery maker named Josiah Wedgewood created a round medallion designed to hang on the wall. Showing a shackled slave kneeling, pleading, “Am I not a man and a brother?” The Wedgewood medallion became the symbol of the abolitionist cause and a tool to turn hearts and minds toward the plight of the slave. Later, another abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an abolitionist book that President Lincoln famously credited with starting the Civil War. When a piece of art taps into a groundswell of moral passion, it has an ability far greater than words to spark a movement. Today we are much more likely to be moved by music and moving pictures, whether on the small screen, computer screen, or movie screen, than by literature, to say nothing of pottery. Does this medium have the ability to alter history? Can a movie become a movement? It has certainly been tried.
Since the first production company set up its camera in a dusty backcanyon of Los Angeles called Hollywood, there have been message movies. The civil-rights movement brought us A Raisin in the Sun, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Roots. Elia Kazan took on unions in On the Waterfront. Philadelphia almost single-handedly rewrote public opinion on the AIDS crisis and homosexuality. Issues have taken center stage in a in a host of other films: feminism in 9 to 5, the environment in Erin Brokovich, the death penalty in Dead Man Walking, the diamond trade in Blood Diamonds. War, in its many shades of gray, has been covered in everything from Saving Private Ryan to Fahrenheit 911. For every example mentioned here, dozens more could be named. In a sense, every drama is a message movie. As P.G. Wodehouse commented, “You can either pretend that nothing matters and make a sort of musical comedy, or accept that everything matters.”
Passion makes for great movies. Filmmakers scour the world for passionate stories to tell, and people are passionate about injustice. Whether watching Sidney Poitier fight Jim Crow or Leonardo DiCaprio fight diamond traders, the story told moves the viewer and raises awareness of the issue highlighted. However, when filmmakers put the message above the story, the product falls flat. This happens with both secular films like Happy Feet, a tiring screed about humanity’s destruction of the environment, and religious films in which the story is a tool to cause conversions. In order to touch that magical point of moving people, a film must have a compelling story, well written and well acted, and filmed with expertise.
Recently, some new production companies have been aiming to do more than just promote a message. They want to move the viewer to action. Their goal is to move beyond ticket sales, to convincing people to work for a cause.
No one has done this more effectively than Participant Productions. The company states its goal as “changing the world one story at a time.” Founded by E-bay guru Jeff Skoll, the film company has made such movies as Fast Food Nation, Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, and North County. Each comes with its own campaign: fighting obesity, infotainment, dependence on oil, and domestic violence, respectively. The campaigns are run through websites complete with links to write to Congress, tips to change personal habits, organizations accepting donations, and “virtual petitions.” Participant credits North Country with helping to pass the Violence Against Women Act of 2005.
The film company’s greatest triumph has come, however, from a little flick — now an Academy Award winner — called An Inconvenient Truth. This omnipresent documentary about global warming has not only solidified the national consensus that global warming is a threat, but has managed to make a star out of Al Gore — something highly paid political advisors couldn’t do. Released world-wide and given for free to schools, it is less a movie than a crusade. Widely embraced by many Americans, people encourage each other to see it, not for the sake of entertainment, but to join the cause. The accompanying website lists ways to reduce one’s own carbon emissions and ways to advocate for local, national, and international regulations to reduce emissions. There is a petition to sign. Like some kind of solar-powered Energizer bunny, it keeps going and going. Recently, Gore joined with Cameron Diaz to announce a worldwide “Live Earth” concert that will take place over 24 hours to raise awareness and money for his fight. Popular music groups are stumbling over each other to sign on.
Bristol Bay Productions hopes to light the same kind of fire with Amazing Grace, a feature film about British Parliamentarian and abolitionist William Wilberforce. The beautiful movie, which opened Friday, follows Wilberforce in his decades-long and uphill struggle to abolish the slave trade. A student of John Newton, the former slave trader who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” Wilberforce’s faith inspires him to campaign for the downtrodden, and first of all for slaves. One of the like-minded people he gathered around him in a community called Clapham was the pottery-maker Josiah Wedgewood.
Bristol Bay hopes that people will be inspired by Amazing Grace to become modern abolitionists. In a world where millions are bonded or forced laborers, made to marry against their will, or trafficked for prostitution or labor, Wilberforce’s work remains to be finished. Erik Lokkesmoe, project manager for Amazing Grace, hopes that, for many, “seeing Amazing Grace will be the first step to becoming an abolitionist.” Calling Wilberforce the “patron saint of the anti-trafficking movement,” Lokkesmoe points viewers toward The Amazing Change, a website that is a clearing house for information and action on modern day slavery. The Amazing Change is joined by partners who have experience working in the issue: ChildVoice International, Free the Slaves, International Justice Mission, and Rugmark. Bristol Bay, like Participant Productions, hopes not only to make a profit and win Oscars, but to change the world.
While Amazing Grace is a much-longed-for first step, there is plenty of room for movement movies to counter the left-leaning Participant Productions and Michael Moores of the world. There are passionate pro-life stories to be told, as well as stories of affirming the dignity and worth of the disabled, rejecting the more belligerent brand of feminism, and overcoming modern despair and finding meaning in life. There is no reason why Hollywood should be dominated by atheistic nihilists other than the abdication of the rest of us. Those who want to affect the future of this country would do well to invest in visionaries inside the entertainment industry who will undertake the expensive, complex, and time-consuming work of finding and supporting the writers, producers, and directors who can bring these stories to life. Participant Productions isn’t the only one who can change the world one story at a time.
— Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.