One hopes that we Americans continue to cherish the stories and heritage of the great abolitionist heroes of our history. But the name of William Wilberforce, perhaps the greatest abolitionist crusader of British history, may be less familiar to us. But his life and political career provide plenty of material for a powerful film of epic moral struggle. Entering the House of Commons in 1780, at the youngest eligible age of 21, Wilberforce proceeded to devote more than 20 years to his crusade to end the British slave trade, which he finally accomplished in 1807. Michael Apted’s gorgeous and fitfully inspiring film, Amazing Grace, attempts to depict Wilberforce’s life while also capturing a sense of the labyrinthine journey of a simple moral issue through the thickets of political intrigue and compromise.
Apted’s almost 50-year directing career has been wide ranging. He has directed thrillers like “Gorky Park” (1983) and the James Bond film, “The World Is Not Enough” (1999), along with the excellent film biographies “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980) and “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988). His television work has included the monumental documentary series “7Up” and its several sequels, as well as a few episodes of the recent British miniseries, “Rome,” which aired on HBO.
The award-winning screenwriter of “Amazing Grace,” Steven Knight, was nominated for a 2004 Academy Award for his story of a Nigerian immigrant in West London, “Dirty Pretty Things.”
Wilberforce is played by the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, who brings a combination of moral earnestness, romantic good looks and a resonant baritone to present the character as a sincere fellow. Having undergone an inconveniently timed spiritual conversion a few years after his entrance into Parliament, he must decide between continuing his political career or devoting himself to religion. Or, as his friend from Cambridge days, William Pitt, phrased it, should he use his beautiful voice “to praise the Lord or to change the world?”
The film derives its title from the relationship between Wilberforce and the man who wrote the lyrics to the famous hymn praising the “amazing grace” of God, “which saved a wretch like me.” John Newton (played by the beefy septuagenarian Albert Finney) had been a slave ship captain until he became, by God’s grace, acutely aware of the suffering he was inflicting on his fellow human beings. Newton quit the business, wrote the lyrics to the famous hymn and spent the rest of his long life as a quasi-monk repenting of his sins and serving as a spiritual mentor to Wilberforce. The centrality that the film’s title gives to Newton’s role in Wilberforce’s work lends a moral dimension to what might otherwise be merely an account of two decades of parliamentary debate.
The film, unfortunately, begins in medias res in 1797, when Wilberforce, almost 40 years old, discouraged by the continuous failure of his bill in Parliament and tortured by a digestive malady, takes refuge at the home of friends, who introduce him to Barbara Spooner, a witty, perceptive activist for all the right causes, especially abolition, who is destined to become his wife. As played by the stunning newcomer Romola Garai, she also looks as if she has just stepped out of a Gainsborough painting.
Before we are allowed to follow this romance, however, the story backtracks 15 years to Wilberforce’s earliest battles in Parliament, where, as he argues in favor of a treaty to end the war with the American rebels, he hurls witty taunts at his opponents, the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones) and Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds). A friend, William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbach), who plans to become prime minister within a few years, encourages Wilberforce’s impertinent speechmaking. He is also prodded to action by the monkish Newton and by a contingent of Quakers and other abolitionists led by the radical Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell). Meanwhile, his personal religious conversion provides an even stronger prod to his anti-slave trade campaigning.
A good deal of the narrative jumps annoyingly back and forth from 1797 to various years of political maneuvering and failures to pass the bill. Most trying is the period of the French Revolution and its chaotic aftermath. While Clarkson argues for an alignment with the revolutionaries, Pitt distances himself from Wilberforce’s campaign, claiming that to support abolition would be interpreted as an act of rebellion against King George at a time when any disagreement with the king is branded as sedition, smacking of French revolutionary radicalism.
Midway through the film, it becomes almost impossible to keep track of the story’s chronology. The narrative flits from 1797 to a legal maneuver in 1804 to cripple the slave trade by impounding ships sailing under the “neutral U.S. flag” during England’s war with Napoleon, to Pitt’s untimely death in 1806 and then, at last, to the passage of Wilberforce’s bill by an overwhelming majority vote (282 to 16) in 1807. The climactic scene shows the members of the House of Commons—including Pitt’s opponents—saluting the victorious Wilberforce with a rare standing ovation (applause was traditionally forbidden in the House of Commons). It was followed by an encomium from one of his savviest colleagues, Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon), contrasting Wilberforce as a man of peace with Napoleon, whose power came from violence and tyranny. (The almost unprecedented standing ovation and tribute, which was actually delivered by another M.P., Sir Samuel Romilly, were widely reported at the time.)
The film ends with a description of the further social reforms promoted by Wilberforce, who continued to serve in Parliament until 1825. (Happily, he lived to see the entire institution of slavery abolished throughout the British Empire on July 26, 1833, three days before his death.) As this account appears on the screen, the Irish Guards Pipe Band, in formation, plays “Amazing Grace” in the courtyard of Westminster Abbey, where Wilberforce lies buried next to Pitt.What Stirs the Viewer
While the story is confusing at times, Gruffud’s portrayal of Wilberforce—his struggle against overwhelming opposition from Parliament and the mercantile interests, his battle with physical pain, his determination to free himself from addiction to the laudanum opiate given to deal with his disease and his regular bouts of discouragement—is inspiring indeed.
Especially powerful are two vivid scenes. In one scene Wilberforce unrolls before his peers a scroll, a petition with 390,000 signatures in favor of his bill. In another Wilberforce and a colleague maneuver a party-boat full of his Parliamentary supporters to sail up next to a slave ship docked in the harbor, where they must endure the sickening smell left by the human cargo who had died in passage (two-thirds of the slaves). While the film does not portray the horrors of the middle passage from Africa to the New World as vividly as did Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” it does give several reports of the inhuman conditions the African captives endured, particularly the workers in the Jamaican sugar-cane fields. And the performance of the noble hymn by bagpipes provides an irresistibly stirring finale.
Viewers will no doubt find different meanings in this story. Some may enjoy it as an epic portrait of intricate political debate in the tumultuous era of British history that spanned the American and French revolutions, the Napoleonic wars and the Regency crisis created by the madness of King George III. Others may see in it a provocative study of morality versus economics as Wilberforce’s Tory opponents see the abolition of the slave trade as bringing to ruin the country’s vital shipping industry.
The film raises several current-day questions: Does this example of a politician whose legislative agenda was so clearly driven by his religious convictions provoke any sympathy for the evangelical politics of Jimmy Carter, or the “born-again” story of George W. Bush, or the political work of the ministry school graduate Al Gore? Do the accusations of seditious and unpatriotic thought during England’s war with France resemble the crackdown on criticism of our current wartime administration?
Some may fault the film for ignoring the real-life Wilberforce’s lack of support for the British labor movement with its equally righteous concerns about the working and living conditions of his own poor countrymen. (It might also be informative to explore whether the end of the slave trade historically dealt a significant blow to the British economy, as Wilberforce’s opponents predicted.) Or the film can be viewed as simply the true story of a noble public servant whose hard-won victory was shaped by the idealism and pragmatism of Pitt, the radical morality of Clarkson and the other abolitionists, the support of his idealistic wife and the witness of conversion and repentance offered by John Newton.
Whatever the case, the echo of those bagpipes follows one out of the theater into a world in desperate need of men and women—whether driven by faith or by natural compassion—who are not afraid to sing out against the inhumanities of our time.