I remember seeing Amazing Grace (2006) in the theaters. It is a historical film, and throughout my life I have been drawn to them like a moth to a flame. If you know nothing about these events, but the title seems familiar to you, it is because the roots of the famous song are explained in the movie. However, that is not the focus. We sing “Amazing Grace” in Mass, as I am sure do Protestant churches as well. It has been performed by many singers in the secular world as well. However, it owes its roots to a momentous occasion in human history, that being the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.
While Amazing Grace tells the story of the end of an era of human suffering and is not necessarily about the song, the two are connected to one another. William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) is the driving force behind this cause in late eighteenth century England, though when we meet him he does appear to be the energetic politician with the kind of mettle needed to effect change in the world’s most powerful empire. In fact, much of this story is told when Wilberforce is a little older and the years of toiling, and mostly failing, for such a noble purpose had taken their toll on his health. It is not too clear what he has, and this being the eighteenth century, neither are his doctors sure. But he travels to that cure-all location for many British folk of that era, Bath, at the behest of his friends Henry (Nicholas Farrell) and Marianne Thornton (Sylvester Le Touzel). Wilberforce’s friends believe one of the best remedies is to find a suitable love match for him, and they contrive to put him together with Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). It is in their conversations that much of the tale of Wilberforce’s struggle is told, from its beginnings during the American Revolution with the secretive patronage of future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), to its near defeat by powerful interests tied to the slave trade headed by Lord Tarleton (Ciarán Hinds). Wilberforce is aware of the seeming wall he is up against, and enlists the help of a group of people dedicated to the cause, some of which are accused of being revolutionaries. Remember that this is a dangerous time for revolutionary ideas, no matter how blindingly and painfully obvious was the wrongness of slavery to our more modern sensibilities. Nonetheless, Wilberforce slowly and deliberately collects evidence, builds a support base, and presents it all to the House of Commons. He is met with still more resistance. It is after this that he travels to Bath, and his meeting and subsequent marriage to Barbara is what restores his spirits and renews his desire to see his fight through to the end. Even then he has to resort to a little bit of political trickery, attacking the ability of slave traders to carry their terrible cargo overseas, in order to make any headway. With the shipping aspect taken care of, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire was all but a forgone conclusion. As the film closes, it reminds us that Wilberforce also championed many other reform causes, which he pursued until his dying day.
Aside from its focus on abolition, Amazing Grace is a rich film experience. For this reviewer, that is driven home by the shots of the docks where slave ships moored while in London. When shooting something that takes place in the age of sail, studios rely heavily on Computer Generated Images (CGI), unless you are talking about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), but that is more the exception than the rule. CGI can be hit or miss, and there is something about the graceful lines of late eighteenth/early nineteenth century sailing ships that do not translate well when done by computer. Yet when you see the crowded London docks, you see a miasma of masts and rigging, and boats moving up and down the Thames estuary, and it all looked incredible. The rest of the movie is quite pleasing to look at from a historical perspective, but these scenes in particular caught my eye.
Another scene that captured my attention in Amazing Grace is when we are introduced to John Newton, the former slave trader turned clergyman who wrote the lyrics to the song. While the movie certainly got his background right, he was not quite as reclusive as he is depicted. It makes sense. Anyone who had visited such pain on so many people, and then had a conversion experience that led him to renounce that life, would be understandably haunted by his memories. I also got excited too when he first appears on screen because he is seen wearing a rough robe, barefooted, and mopping the inside of a very Catholic looking church. But that is Anglicanism for you, Catholic in all but name. That was the sect for which Newton became a preacher, and unlike in the movie he was quite active in trying to get slavery abolished. At any rate, I want to praise the film for emphasizing the Christian roots of the anti-slavery movement. It is not just Newton, but most everyone involved had some personal relationship with God. In the United States, we look at Christianity and its intersection with slavery as a tool of control. It is true that many slave owners erroneously used the Bible to justify keeping other humans in bondage. However, if you want any further proof of Christians being against slavery, look at the Catholic Church. If nothing else, communion with the Church was an avenue to emancipation for centuries before Wilberforce came along, not to take anything away from his work.
I highly recommend Amazing Grace, though if you find history boring that might be a problem for you. I hope not because it is an important film. One might also look at Wilberforce’s consumption of laudanum as a problem, which would be understandable too. Laudanum is a derivative of opium, the same plant used to create all manner of modern drugs that have become a plague upon society. Back then it was taken medicinally, though its affects were still pretty bad. It should be noted too that he decides to get off it at one point. With all that said, it is worth viewing.