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Laramie Movie Scope:
Amazing Grace

The long, hard battle against slavery

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 20, 2007 -- “Amazing Grace” is a film about the incredible long uphill battle won by slavery abolitionists in England long before slavery was finally abolished in the United States. It is a story of a battle by a devout Christian who, faced with a choice between a life of prayer or a life of political activism, chose both and succeeded. This is a very inspirational movie about how noble politics can be when it is combined with morality and passion.

The main character in the film is abolitionist William Wilberforce (played brilliantly by Ioan Gruffudd of “Fantastic Four”). The story is told using a lot of flashbacks, showing how Wilberforce has gotten old, sick and tired after years of fighting losing battles against the entrenched forces of slavery as a member of Parliament. In addition to fighting the powerful pro-slavery forces led by Lord Tarleton (Ciarán Hinds of “Munich”), Wilberforce is also fighting the painful and debilitating medical condition of colitis. Doctors prescribed the addictive opiate laudanum to relieve Wilberforce's chronic pain, but this treatment produced its own set of problems.

Another key character in the film is William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch of “To the Ends of the Earth”) a friend of Wilberforce's who becomes Prime Minister of England and entices Wilberforce to join him with the promise of his help in the battle against slavery. Pitt is less idealistic than Wilberforce, but no less committed to ending slavery. The two part company when a war with France forces Pitt to abandon the battle against slavery because of political expediency. Feeling tired and betrayed, Wilberforce retires from politics, later to find himself re-energized by the love of a woman who is as idealistic as he is, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai of “Scoop”).

Wilberforce eventually finds the energy to re-enter the fight against slavery, backed by his old allies, Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell of “The Illusionist”), John Newton (Albert Finney of “Erin Brockovich”), Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon of “The Good Shepherd”), Oloudah Equiano (Youssou N'dour) and Pitt. Wilberforce eventually finds that he needs more than truth and morality to win the day against the powerful economic forces arrayed against him. What finally turns the tide is a bit of legal trickery supplied by a clever abolitionist lawyer and some timely bribery. Wilberforce's revenge is made even sweeter by the fact that his victory is won by the same means that he had been defeated in the past.

In a parliamentary speech, Lord Fox notes that men of peace like Wilberforce don't get the accolades, parades, money and monuments that men of war often do, but they often have a more profound impact on history. Men like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Wilberforce made profound changes in the world without ever firing a gun. They were armed only with the courage of their convictions. The great military leaders of the world have had plenty of books and movies devoted to them. Now Wilberforce and his allies have their own movie to celebrate them. It will never make the money of a war movie like 300, but it will find its audience just the same. I was pleased to see that Rufus Sewell, who usually plays evil characters, gets to be one of the good guys in this movie.

The great Albert Finney turns in another memorable performance in this film as the former slave ship captain John Newton, who repents his sins and pens the famous song “Amazing Grace.” At one point in the film, Gruffudd sings a verse of the song, then there is a stirring rendition of it as the credits roll at the end of the film. I don't know what pipe and drum band plays it, or what castle they are performing in front of, but in the film's credits, the Irish Guards Pipe Band and the Balmoral Pipes band are both mentioned. Hampton Court Palace is mentioned as one of the filming locations. The tune Amazing Grace is said to have originated in Scotland. It may have originated elsewhere, but at any rate it is ideally suited to be played by bagpipes. It is one of the world's great songs, and now it has a worthy movie to go with it. This film rates an A.

This film depicts one of the great causes championed by Christianity, the abolition of slavery, which was continued by the Rev. Martin Luther King and others in modern times. Christians formed the backbone of the prohibition, anti-pornography, anti-slavery and pro civil rights movements, and they also played a prominent role in the opposition to the Vietnam war and the Iraq war. Christians also play a key role in the opposition to the death penalty, abortion and the anti-gay rights movement. It should be noted that Christians have never been united in these various movements. Christians found themselves divided by the anti-slavery, prohibition, and civil rights movements, just as they are now divided on the gay rights, abortion and death penalty issues. Although Christians often disagree, the overall trend of these movements has usually been toward an increase in liberty. In the words of President Woodrow Wilson, “The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of government power, not the increase of it.” The prohibitionists won the battle, but lost the war against alcohol, because they tried to outlaw it, to limit liberty. They won the battles and the wars against slavery and segregation and by doing so increased both liberty and equality. Recently, Christians have tried to fight this historical trend by rolling back liberty and equality and increasing the government's power over the people. This is what the numerous gay marriage bans are all about. I think these laws will ultimately fail because they restrict liberty and promote inequality. If these laws persist, it could signal a new epoch in which the government will continue to grow more powerful and individual liberty will continue to weaken.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics, theater tickets and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2007 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)