On the 3rd, we went out to see “Amazing Grace,” the new movie about the crusade to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Ioan Gruffudd plays William Wilberforce, the leading Parliamentary voice of the Abolitionist movement. As the film opens, Wilberforce is tired, sick, and discouraged at his continued failure to overcome the entrenched, moneyed interests’ insistence that continuation of the slave trade was necessary to the continuation of the Empire. His friends Sir Charles and Lady Middleton take him for what we would now call a “spa holiday” to take the waters at Bath, and to set him up to meet Barbara Spooner, as a prospective wife. In the movie, neither one of them takes to this ‘blind date’ introduction well at all, and it appears to be some time before the two actually get together. (In real life, Wilberforce proposed to Spooner within two weeks of meeting her, and they were married within the following month.) The film does take some liberties with the historical record for dramatic purposes, but in the main is honest with the dynamics of the highly charged debate. I was a bit disappointed that we only saw minutes of debates in the House of Commons, but it was not on oratorical brilliance that the cause of Abolition eventually prevailed. Instead, we are shown the construction of one of the first popular movements for social reform. Indeed, many of the tactics, such as letter-writing campaigns, which are now over-familiar to us, had their first effective use in these times. Books were written, socially conscious young women were persuaded to boycott slave-produced sugar (nowadays we would hear about using only “fair-trade” sugar--), and “mass media.” At one time, the wall of nearly every pub in England sported a diagram of a slave ship’s holds showing the manner the wretched cargo was crammed in. We see the intricacies of Parliamentary maneuvering from old (distracting or diverting opposing members away from key votes) to newer, such as hiding purposeful legislation in an otherwise long, dull bill (a tactic still in use today). We also saw the use of all-too common counter tactics: as Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbach) says, in wartime (with France) “Opposition becomes sedition,”—something else we still hear today. (Cf: Ann Coulter, “Treason”, et al.)
Spooner (Romola Garai) does indeed marry Wilberforce and becomes the helpmeet he needs to help him and his cause succeed when the tide of public opinion begins to turn, although Wilberforce’s health remained poor. Wilberforce and William Pitt (the Younger) were indeed friends at Cambridge, and Pitt was certainly a factor in Wilberforce’s decision to enter politics, though it is probably doubtful he exercised the kind of influence shown in the film, which, if it were so, would make the Abolitionist movement far more beholden to Pitt than is usually acknowledged. There are a few liberties with the parliamentary record, also: Wilberforce’s first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791 was soundly defeated, but garnered 88 votes to 163, far more than the sixteen favorable votes portrayed in the film. It is, however, true that when the Abolition Bill, which had already passed the House of Lords, was approved by Commons in 1807, there were only sixteen dissenters.
Nevertheless, the movie is a good solid story and tells its tale with great moral truth. Gruffudd and company are ably supported by a distinguished cast, including Michael Gambon as the weary realpolitiker Charles James Fox, Bill Paterson as the treacherous Lord Dundas, Ciaran Hinds as Lord Tarleton, fellow for Liverpool and Wilberforce’s chief antagonist, and Albert Finney as John Newton, reformed slave-ship captain, clergyman, and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It was also a pleasure to see Rufus Sewell, who has lately been playing smooth-faced villains, bring his slightly mad manner and fey looks to the role of the radical Thomas Clarkson.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “Amazing Grace” was “one of the best movies I’ve ever seen” as I over heard one of the audience say afterward, it is a thoroughly good, engaging movie with a highly moral and inspiring point. Recommended for all ages that can comprehend the intricacies of the ideas.
Note: Since September 11, 2001, "Amazing Grace" has been dreadfully over done in this country, especially as a funeral dirge. Mercifully, we only hear the tune twice during the film, once when Wilberforce sings it, and once at the very end.