Amazing Grace

DirectorMichael Apted
StarringIoan Gruffudd
Rufus Sewell
Michael Gambon
Albert Finney
Youssou N'Dour
Running Time117 mins

This film was released in 2007 to coincide with 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Slave Trade. It tells the story of the political campaigner William Wilberforce and how he stood up to special interests and entrenched privilege to pass the all important law abolishing the evil trade. It is very much a biographical treatment of Wilberforce although homing in on this defining issue of his life.

Other critics have raised the issue of its Anglo-centricity in that it does not give enough credit to the slaves themselves in their role in achieving their freedom. For example, it only has a fleeting role for Olaudah Equiano. There may be some credence in this criticism but only to the point that there are other films that could and should be made about this topic. It is such an earth shatteringly important issue that it could do with additional films showing the efforts of other individuals and groups striving against the commercial and political powers to end slavery. I would love to see a film about the Haiti slave rebellions which are mentioned in passing in this film and yet were so fundamental in shaking the foundations of the institution. However, this film does not have that focus. Instead it focusses on the remarkable career of a remarkable man. William Wilberforce not only shamed Britain into being the first nation on the planet to abolish the Slave Trade, but the way that he did it pioneered pressure-group politics in ways that are still used to this day; multi-media events and related products, petitions and innovative lobbying tactics were all employed to devastating effect. What the defenders had in political and monetary terms was constantly undermined by the tactics and moral high ground claimed by the abolitionists. The tactics were as ground breaking as the end result - a concept that this biographical film allows to be portrayed.

In many ways this film could have been more gruesome and graphic. It could have had cutaways to the treatment of the slaves in Africa, on the middle passage or on arrival in the New World. However, it uses the tactics that the abolitionists themselves would've had to have used. It has to describe through reports and statistics, expose people to the ships and equipment used, it has to rely on the testimony of witnesses who saw the horrors with their own eyes. In a way, the viewer is exposed to the same tactics and evidence that the contemporaries would have seen. The sum of that evidence is damning. It does not need to resort to the simplistic representation of the horror itself - the evidence speaks volumes. And yet, even this compelling evidence had a hard time battling with patriotism and sedition. The film accurately relates the setback to the abolitionists caused by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars when productivity and economic viability trumped morality. It is an interesting and important lesson in real-politik. The film is right to raise this issue but it does balk at raising the full economic arguments employed against the institution of slavery. In fact the only real weakness of the film is that it does not explain the economics convincingly. The balance sheet of slavery could be deceptively positive. It looks like work is being done for virtually free that would otherwise not be done. However, if you factored in the costs of repression and keeping the slaves 'in their place' the economics shift substantially. Further compare the fruits of slave labour and free labour and then slavery does really begin to lose its economic attractiveness. Those who want to work will do a much better job than those who are made to work. One need only compare the relative economic models of the 'South' and 'North' of America in the Nineteenth Century to see which was the more successful economic model. This point did need to be made in the film and in fact it was a significant factor in winning the support of waverers. Add the strategic advantage of promising freedom to the slaves in French and Spanish plantations then it would finally overcome the hurdles of being passed in the midst of the Napoleonic War.

Of course, the film does take some liberties. The Charles Fox speech (clip below) although very moving and powerful did not take place - in fact it would have been difficult for Charles to have delivered it as he died the year before. Additionally the film does not make clear two important (if contradictory) points about slavery vis-a-vis Britain. First of all, slavery in Britain itself had already been declared illegal - this was thanks to the Magna Carta which specified that everyone had certain rights. The Slave Trade pertained to the Empire and Colonies only - this is mentioned in the film but its significance could be overlooked. The Second point was that it was the 'Slave Trade' and not 'Slavery' that was banned in the colonies. It would be another 25 years before Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. The 1807 event was a milestone, but it was not the end of the journey by any means.

The film has a surprisingly strong cast - many of the secondary characters are played by powerful actors and actresses who give a strong supporting cast to Ioan Gruffudd. Michael Gambon and Albert Finney both excelled in these terms and you might actually want to see films about their own lives in their own right they were so convincing. Even the love interest, which seems to be compulsory in all period films, was not intrusive and was compelling and believable.

If you wish to see how the British Parliament bucked the trend of world history by becoming the first civilisation to outlaw the Slave Trade in the middle of a war and in the face of entrenched political opposition then this is a film for you. It is not an action packed thriller, but the stakes are so high and the obstacles so immense that it is still one of Britain's finest achievements by one of its true heroes and should be celebrated by a film such as this.

William Wilberforce in Parliament The Anti-Abolitionists
Abolitionists Lobby Wilberforce
Cruising towards Slavers A Life of Luxury

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by Stephen Luscombe