Friday, December 28, 2007

Movie review: Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce and his effort to end the slave trade in the British Empire. It is, er, um, an Amazing story and director Michael Apted and writer Stephen Knight tell it well.

It is not, of course, solely Wilberforce's story. It is also the story of those who persuaded him to get into this fight, those who fought with him, those who opposed him, and, yes, about those millions of slaves transported into death or servitude. Wilberforces's mentor, John Newsom (played wonderfully well by Albert Finney), was captain of a slave ship for twenty years, until he repented. He spoke of constantly having 20,000 ghosts with him, the ghosts of the slaves he transported. Out of his anguish at what he had done, he wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. When he speaks of "grace that saved a wretch like me" it was a true cry of his heart and tormented mind. The experience of slavery is directly told by Olaudah Equiano, played by African musician Youssou N'Dour. Sadly Equiano did not live to see the slave trade ended, but his book about his experiences sold 50,000 copies and had a major impact on public opinion.

Once Wilberforce was convinced to join this fight, he committed to it though the odds against ending the slave trade were high. 300 of the Members of Parliament were in part supported by the slave trade. The fight took years of hard work, showing MPs and the public the horrors of the slave trade.

Wilberforce's most potent ally was William Pitt, who became Prime Minister at the age of 24. Benedict Cumberbatch does an excellent job of portraying Pitt, and Ioan Gruffuds does well as Wilberforce. The movie shows a taste of the forces pulling Wilberforce apart... Pitt has to delay action on the slave trade during the wars with the French, and warns Wilberforce against dangerous ideas, while the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson urges Wilberforce to come to France with him and help create a new world there.

Wilberforce was involved in many causes, including animal welfare. Oddly, he was, according to the New York Times review, anti-trade unions, leaving one of his contemporaries to remark that apparently you had to be an African slave to get Wilberforces's sympathy for bad working conditions. This was not pointed out in the movie, which portrays Wilberforce in an almost entirely positive light. I don't see that as a drawback, in this particular case. The audience knows no one is perfect, yet the cause was such a good one, and the winning of its goal is so uplifting, that anything else would have been a distraction.

The movied points out in the end that Wilberforce continued to work for the abolition of slavery after the ending of the slave trade, and it was accomplished 3 days before his death in 1833.

Amazing Grace is a movie that uplifts the soul and girds one to fight whatever one chooses as the good fight today. The special features section of the DVD has a good information on the work to end slavery in today's world. Highly recommended.

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