They did impossible things because they were too young to know they couldn’t, and in the late 18th century nothing seemed more unlikely than convincing the powerbrokers of England to abandon the slave trade.
Amazing Grace, a British-American production released in 2007 and available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library, is a dramatic account of the campaign to abolish the slave trade in England, conducted without bloodshed, largely by winning the support of the people. It’s directed by Michael Apted, the filmmaker behind the 7-up documentary series, with a screenplay by Steven Knight.
William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) and William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), are young Members of Parlaiment in their 20s, who resolve to shake up the institution together. Pitt soon becomes Prime Minister. But the charismatic Wilberforce becomes an evangelical Christian and considers leaving politics for a more spiritual life.
Pitt urges Wilberforce to use his voice to change the world, not just praise the Lord, and points him towards the emerging abolitionist movement. Slavery wasn’t legal in England in 1782, but it flourished elsewhere under the flag of the British Empire. Once Wilberforce meets leaders in the movement, including Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) and Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), a former slave, his intellectual search for a cause becomes a passionate devotion to a lifelong quest.
Many fellow politicians are equally resolute in favour of the slave trade and pose arguments that will sound both familiar and discomfiting to modern ears. Wilberforce and company appeal to the people of England, using tactics that have since become staples in grassroots campaigns, with a petition signed by hundreds of thousands of people as the centerpiece, which Wilberforce rolls out on the floor of the House of Commons.
But after years of painfully slow progress, Britain enters a war with French revolutionaries, and talk of abolition is conveniently labelled as treasonous, effectively silencing the most ardent supporters. Wilberforce retreats from the fray and the rest scatter — but only temporarily.
A few years later, the abolitionists finally win a significant victory with a clever legal maneuver. In typical offbeat fashion, the film reflects their success in the reaction of Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds), who grasps the consequences of a seemingly innocuous bill (perhaps slightly more quickly than the viewer) minutes before the vote and sets off on a madcap dash through the halls of power, desperately searching for missing members of his cabal.
Amazing Grace is a historical drama served with a spoonful of free trade sugar, with attractive actors playing remarkable characters and a narrative lightened with a sweet romance and witty dialogue. While Wilberforce is at the center of the drama, his companions have stories that would also command attention.
One of these is Wilberforce’s spiritual mentor, Thomas Newton (Albert Finney) who has exiled himself to a monastery in penance for his years as a captain of slave ships.
Newton wrote the lyrics for “Amazing Grace”, a hymn of enduring popularity.