PFS Film Review
Amazing Grace


Amazing GraceAmazing Grace, directed by Michael Apted, is a biopic of William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffodd), who sought to abolish slavery in his role as a member of parliament on moral grounds. In so doing, he was opposed by British businesses that made immense profits from the slave trade. Accordingly, the movie focuses on his political maneuvering to obtain a parliamentary majority to abolish the slave trade, despite his chronic colitis. The movie gives particular credit to his friends Henry and Marianne Thornton (played by Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel) as well as his admirer and, later, wife Barbara Spooner (played by Romola Garai) for providing moral support. Not mentioned in the film are other influences on Wilberforce: (1) John Calvin’s outspoken opposition, (2) a publication by Granville Clark, and (3) Clark’s support in Somersett v Knowles (1772) that freed a slave from Virginia who managed to escape to England. Instead, the focus is on pressures exerted on fellow parliamentarians in several forms: (1) the personal influence of Thomas Clarkson (played by Rufus Sewell), who with Clark formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, (2) the Society’s efforts to collect some 300,000 signatures on a petition, the first example of mass-based political action in British history, (3) Clarkson’s visit to British colonies in the Caribbean in which he interviewed some 20,000 sailors, secured physical evidence in the form of handcuffs, leg-shackles, thumb screws, instruments for forcing open slave's jaws, and branding irons, and then published A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition (1787), (4) the example of the American constitution, also written in 1787, which abolished the slave trade as of 1808, (5) France’s abolition of the slave trade in 1794, (6) Wilberforce’s friend, fellow parliamentarian and prime minister William Pitt (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who allowed the proposed abolition to be introduced into parliament year after year, beginning in 1791, (7) the eloquence of fellow parliamentarians Lord Charles Fox (played by Michael Gambon) and John Newton (played by Albert Finney), (8) a 1789 biography by prominent freed slave Oloudah Equiano (played by Youssou N'Dour), (9) the slave revolt in Haiti in 1790, (10) citing statistics as the fact that one-third of those transported from Africa died en route, and (11) a stealthy parliamentary maneuver authorizing privateers to stop French slave ships flying American neutral flags, which cut off 80 percent of the slave trade while Britain was at war with Napoleonic France. In 1807, parliament finally obliged, passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. In 1833, one month after Wilberforce’s death, parliament abolished slavery in all British colonies. The Political Film Society has nominated Amazing Grace as best film in 2007 on the desirability of democracy as well as to honor a hero in the struggle for human rights. MH

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