In the midst of the annual celebration of Black History Month comes the latest film documenting another dark chapter of the history of Africans and the slave trade. “Amazing Grace” tells the story of noted abolitionist William Wilberforce and his battle to abolish the slave trade in England in the 18th century.
The story unfolds establishing Wilberforce’s (“Fantastic Four’s” Ioan Gruffudd) anti-slavery sentiments, including a strong scene in which he is playing cards with other members of Britain’s Parliament and is asked to accept a “ni**er” as an IOU marker. This incident, along with many similar ones, helped fuel his desire to work to “change the world.”
He undergoes a religious conversion and, initially, is torn whether to pursue his new-found faith or politics. His boyhood friend and later prime minister, William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), arranges a dinner party that includes several other anti-slavery supporters and a freed African slave, Oloudaqh Equiano (Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour). Searching for further clarity, he seeks out clergyman John Newton (Albert Finney) for counsel. Newton, a former slave ship master who wrote the hymn, Amazing Grace, is living in seclusion and shares with Wilberforce that he is haunted by the “spirits of 20,000 Africans.” Their meeting emboldens Wilberforce to champion the anti-slavery movement.
Several scenes very effectively display the horrors of slavery. A large shipload of British aristocrats are shown sailing along – eating, drinking and making merry – when they encounter an anonymous vessel. Wilberforce emerges from the mysterious ship to explain to the partygoers that he’s aboard a recently arrived slave ship that delivered a cargo of over 200 live occupants – minus the other 400 who perished during the Middle Passage. He implores them to “smell the stench and remember” those that were lost.
The film indicates that his journey was a five-year odyssey when in reality Wilberforce fought for anti-slavery legislation for over four decades. Joining forces with Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) and Newton, Wilberforce and his supporters overcome much of the house’s opposition, including surly Lord Tarleton (Ciarán Hinds), to finally gain enough support to pass his anti-slavery bill.
The story is well told, but doesn’t appear to be a film that will draw a large African-American audience. Although the filmmaker’s heart is in certainly in the right place, many African-Americans may take issue with the film’s overall storytelling perspective.
One recurring issue that proved troublesome was the absence of Africans in telling the story. A second problem was that there are only three instances in the entire film that African characters are even onscreen.
It was only after a near-death experience by Newton that he wrote the song, “Amazing Grace.” While it’s difficult to question the Wilberforce’s grace and passion of his convictions, the film is just slightly above average.