Title: Amazing Grace
Time: Around two hours.
Moving Rating: “PG”, a family film although there are some disturbing scenes depicting the cruelty of the slave trade.
This is a historical film depicting the true story of William Wilberforce, scion of a wealthy merchant family and member of the British parliament, and his political campaign two centuries ago to ban the African slave trade throughout the British Empire. Chattel slavery was the backbone of the labor force in many British colonies, especially the lucrative sugar cane plantations of the West Indies. Many in England made fortunes from this, and the vile enterprise of slave trading fueled it at a horrific cost in human lives. The movie chronicles Wilberforce's uphill battle as a member of the House of Commons to outlaw the African slave trade by (along with a little parliamentary gamesmanship) changing the hearts and minds of his fellow Britons who had accepted with little thought the unseen brutality and carnage of the African slave trade. It is a movie that renews the spirit for the pursuit of justice by reminding us that even the hardest hearts against the human dignity of others can be overcome.
Amazing Grace takes us along William Wilberforce’s journey from a young man early in his political career whose faith called upon him to put an end to the slave trade through the dispiriting defeats as a middle-aged man to his eventual victory over that great evil in his later years. The film shows what a commonplace slavery was even in England itself, not just its empire, two hundred years ago and the general indifference of the British public to it. It also showed how many prospered from slavery supplied by a slave trade at the cost of Africans beaten, shackled, caged, and starved to death by the hundreds of thousands during the cruel and perilous passage across the Atlantic from Africa to the Caribbean. Interestingly, it also showed the guilty knowledge of the ship owners plying this evil trade, who tried to keep the huge loss of life an industry secret.
Your heart rises and sinks with the advances and retreats of Wilberforce’s campaign to vanquish the slave trade. You are roused when Wilberforce transmutes his personal disgust with slavery into a call to arms against it as he sings “Amazing Grace” to his astonished card-playing comrades in parliament. You despair when Wilberforce calls a conference of those comrades to battle the slave trade and walks into a nearly empty meeting hall. You feel how Wilberforce steels himself for that battle when consults with his mentor, John Newton, a slave trader haunted by the ghosts of 20,000 Africans who died in the bowels of his ships who became an Anglican clergyman and penned “Amazing Grace” as a powerful hymn that no one is beyond redemption. You also feel how weak a vessel Wilberforce physically is as this battle makes him a bed-ridden wreck.
But there is victory for Wilberforce in the end, and the parliamentary machinations by which he achieves it provides unexpected suspense. Just as unexpected is the satisfaction of the final scene in which the viewer is treated to a parade of a Highlander military unit in full kit playing the hymn “Amazing Grace” on their bagpipes. While it is difficult to show through writing how absorbing this film is, it does pull you in, as evidenced by the fact none of the theater-goers left as the credits scrolled over the final scene. All stayed, but then that is the power of both the hymn and the film Amazing Grace, the power of redemption.
Few can walk out of this movie and not be moved by the story, the history, and the song. It was inspiring on many levels. This movie will appeal to history buffs and those who like stories of redemption. This movie was heartbreaking and heartening all at the same time.
Few Americans know the story of William Wilberforce who ignited the abolitionist movement that eventually exploded in this country as the Civil War and united the Royal and U.S. Navies as the military force that exterminated slavery throughout the world. Even fewer Americans appreciate the soulless indifference of most people two hundred years ago to the misery of their fellow man until Wilberforce stirred consciences not only against slavery and the slave trade, but the abuse of women and children, grinding poverty, and the inhumane conditions of prisons and insane asylums. Society’s pitiless cruelty, poverty, and brutality towards the young, the weak, and the old that we take for granted as outrageous is a lesson we have the benefit of learning from men like Wilberforce who shook his fellow citizens out of their complacency towards such depravity.
So leaders do matter. One man can make a difference. We can take a page from history, and like Wilberforce, fight against the darkness, destruction, and cruelty that indifference allows to inhabit our souls. Amazing Grace reminds us that we can redeem ourselves in this way.
My Recommendation: Definitely go see Amazing Grace. It is appropriate for people of almost all ages. It is certainly an important history lesson for the young and old alike.
Rating: Four plus stars!
Reviewed By: Bridget Dupont-Tingley, Editor L.A.W.