William Wilberforce (1759-1833), is not exactly a household name in America, and the cannons of political correctness would dismiss him as just another dead white male, so the somewhat clumsy exposition in the early going of Amazing Grace is justified. Viewers will learn that Wilberforce is generous, kind to animals, and not the composer of the famous title song. That honor belongs to former slave-ship captain John Newton, who in the midst of a tempest converted to Christianity. Inspired by Newton’s story, Wilberforce teams with other religious reformers, against great odds, to take down the slave trade in the British Empire.
The film spends a lot of time talking about the evils of slavery instead of showing them. That could have been easily pulled off with flashbacks from the story of John Newton, played by Albert Finney. A slave "trade" involves buyers and sellers and it would have given Amazing Grace even more nuance to show all parties of all colors, as well as the horrors slaves endured. (Newton actually kept running slaves several years after his conversion to Christianity.) But even when flattened out, the story of Wilberforce, played by Ioan Gruffudd, is a powerful one.
His father was a wealthy merchant and in his youth he fell under the influence of Newton and the Methodist movement. After a conversion of his own he falls in with the Clapham group of evangelical Anglicans. Newly inspired, he wonders whether he should pursue a more conventional religious life or tackle the evils of his time through politics. His fellow religious reformers convince him that he can do both, and he does.
More than a period piece of fine detail, Amazing Grace delivers a powerful dramatization of slavery politics. Windbags drone on in the House of Commons about how ending slavery would ruin the country and empire will collapse, how the French would simply take it over and prosper, and so on. The pro-slavers also smear the reformers as pro-French and pro-American subversives. After some defeats, the reformers turn the tables with a clever measure that turns out both anti-French and anti-slavery.
Wilberforce and his ally William Pitt, the Prime Minister, are both fighting health problems but keep pressing the case, collecting evidence and gathering signatures. Their bill to end the slave trade eventually carries the day. Music up with a swell. The good guys win, but there is more to the story. Wilberforce, now a family man, continued reforms on other fronts. A month after his death, Parliament gave freedom to all slaves in the British Empire.
Amazing Grace confirms Orwell's observation that there is no such thing as staying out of politics. The film is a cinematic refutation of politically correct dogmas that the past is nothing more than a chronicle of oppression and that class and race determine politics. Here too is evidence that faith and goodness are dramatically viable, a welcome departure from past caricatures of evangelicals, a favorite target of the left. Turns out, they do a lot more that sit around and sing hymns and the world is now a better place for it.
Human beings who have God-given rights cannot be rightly enslaved. That's what drove the heroes of Amazing Grace. The language of human rights came from Western civilization, based on Judeo-Christian values. Victory over slavery came from societies, especially Britain and the United States, whose commitment to human rights deepened precisely because they fought against their own involvement with “the peculiar institution.” It is no accident that slavery still exists in countries dominated by a different tradition. A movie with the verisimilitude of Amazing Grace remains to be made about that.
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