People will sooner believe a big lie than a little one, noted a WWII-era US intelligence report on Hitler, who famously coined the phrase “the big lie” to describe this very phenomenon. Case in point: the widespread notion of slavery as the special shame of Western, Christian Europe and America. This popular notion exactly reverses the truth.
Throughout human history slavery was widely and uncontroversially practiced on every continent and in practically every culture, from ancient China, India, and Africa to the pre-Colombian Americas. It was only in the Christian world that slavery ever became controversial, that a concept of personal freedom and dignity developed which fostered principled moral resistance to slavery. The Christian West is unique in world history, not for practicing slavery, but for becoming the first society in the world voluntarily to abolish the practice.
Amazing Grace represents a step toward setting the record straight. A rare departure for Walden Media from its stock-in-trade of adapting acclaimed children’s books, Amazing Grace is an inspirational historical biopic celebrating the crusade of English Parliamentarian William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd of Fantastic Four and FF2), a devout Christian, against the slave trade.
Directed by Michael Apted (best known for the acclaimed 7-Up series), Amazing Grace takes a nonlinear approach to the story of Wilberforce’s checkered 18-year campaign to win passage for abolitionist legislation. Outside Parliament, Wilberforce struggles with chronic debilitating colitis and vacillates between devoting his life to politics or religion — an inner debate that draws him, Maria von Trapp–like, willy-nilly into dew-kissed fields for wrestling bouts with God.
Amazing Grace’s best moments are episodes of high showmanship and humor: the chains and shackles placed on the table at a dinner party by dignified ex-slave abolitionist and author Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour) as he explains the horrific reality of conditions on a slave ship; the wary banter of Wilberforce and kindred spirit — and future bride — Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai); the nautical stunt confronting a crowd of well-heeled gentry with the literal stench of the slave trade; the low-key passage of a stealth bill while a single alert opponent, sensing a hidden agenda, races about trying to round up idly loitering allies. Also, of course, the dramatic red-carpet unrolling of an anti-slavery petition on the Commons floor — and the surprise last-minute signatory.
The film benefits, too, from handsome production values and a top-notch cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Wilberforce’s friend and fellow MP (and later PM) William Pitt the Younger, Rufus Sewell as radical abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, and Ciarán Hinds as pro-slavery Lord Tarleton.
At its center, though, is a somewhat underdeveloped, not entirely convincing protagonist. The film’s Wilberforce is a wide-eyed idealist and mystic, quick with well-turned bons mots in Commons give-and-take, but a less canny and strategic thinker than one might hope for in a crusading MP. He’s also one of those indecisive movie heroes who has to keep being told what his mission is by everyone else in the film, from his mentor to his love interest and even his butler.
As fine as the cast is, the dialogue they’re given can be trite and sound-bite‑y, as illustrated by this trailer-ready exchange:
Pitt: “As your Prime Minister, I urge caution.”
Wilberforce: “And as my friend?”
Pitt: “To hell with caution.”
Still, it’s honorable and always watchable. The title, incidentally, reflects the supporting role of John Newton, played with gusto by Albert Finney, a penitent ex-slave ship captain, now a rector and mentor of sorts to Wilberforce as well as the writer of the beloved hymn. (“A wretch like me,” Newton was not afraid to call himself in the original lyrics, with a biographical and theological honesty too direct for the revisionist vandals of hymnody responsible for many missalettes and hymnbooks.)
Not quite amazing, the film is touched by grace nonetheless.
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My only quarrel with Amazing Grace was a musical one. The Newton poem was not associated with the tune “New Britain” until the late 19th century, and that in America, but was sung to almost any Common Metre tune. Wilberforce’s singing it at the gambling club and the congregation singing it at his wedding to “New Britain” was anachronistic.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.