Sunday, February 25, 2007

Amazing Grace--An Amazing Movie

We've all heard the hymn "Amazing Grace." We've heard it in church, or at a Military Tattoo at the Edinburgh Festival or perhaps from Judy Collins (a recording that stayed on the singles charts for an amazing 67 weeks back in 1970-72).

We have all heard, no doubt, John Newton, the former slave-trade ship captain who became a Christian minister, who wrote the hymn.

But this new movie, "Amazing Grace," gives us an insight into how the second half of the 18th century produced a ripple of outrage over the slave trade that, in a span of some 50 years, rose to an overwhelming wave of social disgust over slavery itself . . . at least in Britain. The movie accomplishes this by telling the story of William Wilberforce, a rising star in British politics who became fixated on the subject of abolishing the slave trade and who refused to be worn down by defeat after defeat by the British Parliament.

Slavery did not end with the vote of the British Parliament depicted at the end of this wonderful historical re-creation movie. Only the slave TRADE was abolished. It took until 1833 for slavery itself to be abolished, a bill that passed the parliament several weeks after Wilberforce died. Before his death he was given notice that the bill had been approved for a 3rd reading by the parliament, virtually assuring its passage. Wilberforce died with the satisfaction of knowing that his life's goal had been achieved, at least in law.

Unfortunately, slavery continues to be practiced today, especially in Africa and Asia. History can be changed by articulate, persuasive, gifted respected and imperfect men and women such as Wilberforce, Gandhi, MLK jr.

In this movie it was a nice bonus to experience Wilberforce's eccentric quirkiness (his love of animals leading to his founding the RSPCA), his personal friendship with William Pitt the Younger (still the youngest Prime Minister in British history, I believe), the influence of John Newton (who was a very popular pastor of a large congregation and a well-respected preacher as well as the writer of the hymn) and the interplay of world historical events (the American and French revolutions and their aftermaths).The dirty, smoggy, crowded and smelly depiction of 18th century London helps to explain why men and women of means chose to spend as much time as possible in their country homes/estates.

The close-cropped hair of men (and, less displayed, of women) and the wearing of wigs (due to the infestations of lice, etc) is part of the down-to-earth reality of the times that lifts this movie out of the mere ordinary to the level of worth seeing

Where Spielberg's "Amistad" graphically depicted the horror of the slave trade, "Amazing Grace" graphically shows how perseverance, historical timing, moral rightness and political maneuvering can, on rare occasions, make a world of difference.

Wilberforce may have been a moralistic prig . . . but he was right when the rest of the British Empire . . . and the rest of the world along with it . . . was wrong.

His burial in Westminster Abbey next to William Pitt the Younger was no simple nod to sentimentality, either. It was an intentional mark of the respect and esteem in which he was held by rich and poor alike at the time of his death.

The movie is nicely acted, the costuming is ocassionally stunning, and the scenery is fittingly wet, rainy, drab and even dirty. The screenplay bogs down during the lengthy artifice of Wilberforce's narration of events to his future wife and I lost track of whether the scenes were cutting to past or present and what year what was happening. There are no great chase scenes but there is far more action and drama than in anything written by Jane Austen or any given Bronte you might chose.

All in all, a decent movie that is far better than its limited distribution might suggest.

I encourage everyone to see this movie if for no other reason than to grasp the social and political context of the struggle to end the slave trade and slavery itself. The film quitely and wordlessly presents the reality that the moral foundation for ending slavery came primarily from Christian (including Quaker) leaders. The opposition to abolition by other Christian leaders in high authority, however, is not noted. Knowing that the Bishop of Exeter (for example) received over 1,000 pounds compensation for his slaves when slavery was at last abolished outright in 1833 shows how difficult it was for people like Wilberforce to get such legislation passed.

We can all be grateful for the vision and dogged determination of people like William Wilberforce. Slavery was, and still is, a great evil. The fact that more of us know this now than knew it then should make us even more resolute to bring a final and universal end to this brutal assualt on our common humanity.

A good source for current issues regarding slavery today can be found at the appropriately-named and review the partners and coalition sites. Take anyone you can find to see this movie. Then do something besides hum the hymn.

You can also find the full history and evolution of the text of the hymn "Amazing Grace" at Wikipedia.