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Laramie Movie Scope:
Amazing Grace

A strong-willed man of peace gives voice to the defenseless
performing God's work, eradicating the slave trade

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2007) A strong-willed man of peace with the persistence of a wild boar and the empowering principles of inalienability gave voice, consecrated and concentrated in morality and law, in defense of the undefended for their right to share in the song of freedom.

By the late 18th century, eleven million Africans had become slaves throughout the British Empire since the first expedition to Africa in 1562. This historical drama, directed by Michael Apted, concludes with the passage of the bill (283 ayes versus 16 nays) that abolished the slave trade everywhere in the British Empire, which sounds like something one could read in a textbook. But this film makes drama of history and character of names: these people deserve to be known, not just remembered vaguely, for what they struggled to accomplish, allowing us the privilege of their legacy to call ourselves lovers of freedom.

The most committed abolitionist and most eligible bachelor in England, William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a wealthy commoner and humanitarian (generous to a fault), has come to stay with his cousin in Bath for the waters to cure his colitis; his youth and health have been spent after fifteen years of arguing in the House of Commons for social reforms. "Doesn't he know," comments a member of Parliament, "the dangers of anyone who talks sense in this place?" His cousin introduces him to Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai): their conversation reveals mutual political views on education, prevention of cruelty to animals, the war with France, among other subjects; she says that at fourteen she convinced herself to cease putting sugar into her tea because it contained the blood of slaves.

Fifteen years earlier, during the war with the American colonies, arguing for an end to hostilities, Wilberforce had replied to a challenge questioning the difference between appeasement and surrender as the difference between time and 10,000 young men's lives. His close friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), destined to become prime minister, asks Wilber (as his friends call him): "Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord or change the world?"

During a dinner Wilber has agreed to host at his estate, he's introduced to a group of abolitionists, including Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) and Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour), a former slave, who show Wilber the iron shackles and chains, describing the conditions to which Africans are subjected on the ships. Pitt manipulates his friend's private concerns into political ends, trying to persuade him that as a political activist he can also perform God's work by eradicating the slave trade.

Seeking advice from his friend John Newton (Albert Finney), who became a preacher and the composer of "Amazing Grace" after renouncing his sinful past of 20 years captaining slave-trading ships, though he cannot escape the haunting company of 20,000 ghosts, Wilber hears: "Do it. Take them on. Do it for God's sake." Yet as he explains to Barbara years later, after all the speeches, badges, slogans, pamphlets, books (Equiano sold 50,000 copies of his harrowing experiences), and petitions (including a scroll with 390,000 signatures, on which Lord Charles Fox affixed his own in the House of Commons, thereby changing his allegiance), the conservatives nevertheless held sway by arguing that without slaves there would not be plantations in the Indies and elsewhere, without plantations there would not be revenues for the king, and without revenues for the monarchy the French certainly would take advantage of the situation.

The East India Company bought votes; the livelihoods of ordinary people in the ports as well as planters were also at stake. The evidence - members of Parliament were maneuvered into an encounter with the stench of the Madagascar, a ship just returned from delivering its human cargo of 200 surviving Africans from the original 600 captives, to the Indies - the abolitionists compiled deserved to trump the opposition claims that there was "no evidence that Africans themselves object to the trade," and as for popular opinion, natural leaders must not accede to mob rule.

An imperfect social order (more study and reflection with gradualism to avoid financial disorder) often is the best one can achieve, Pitt as prime minister has come to accept, especially in a time of war with France, warning Wilber that his further opposition will be seen as sedition. The bill for abolition had been defeated; Equiano has died.

But with his two great challenges from God unmet - the end of the slave trade and the reformation of society (believing the former must precede the latter, that the extreme conditions for slaves tend to mask the harsh inequalities of the field worker, the coal miner, the soldier as cannon fodder, and women in general as chattel, undermining God's having made man equal) - Wilber recovers the strength of his resolve, taking encouragement from his bride and the fresh opportunity an end of war with France may provide; draws inspiration from John Newton, who having gone blind has dictated his memoir ("I once was blind but now I see"): "We were apes; they were humans"; resurrects his commitment to the cause, devising with James Stephen ("This time we must not fail them") a subtle new strategy in Parliament of an anti-French bill (involving licensed privateers) that's actually anti-slavery, while obtaining Pitt's tactful tactical support.

Two years afterward in 1807 An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade became law, though the abolition of slavery itself did not occur until the year of Wilberforce's death in 1833.

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Copyright © 2007 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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