This biographical film tells the heroic story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) who, after a fifteen year struggle, ended the slave trade in Great Britain.
The movie begins with a sick William traveling to Bath to regain his strength. His past struggle is revealed through a series of flashbacks. They begin with him fighting in Parliament for the appeasement of America. Parliament provides humorous moments, not unlike the HBS classroom environment, where members are mocked by their adversaries.
The protagonist is encouraged by his friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has ambitions of becoming Prime Minister, and quietly works behind the scenes to help end the slave trade. Wilberforce feels torn between his passion for politics and his passion for God. In the end, his old priest tells him to follow both.
John Newton, the old priest, was played by Albert Finney. He served as captain of a slave ship who recognized what he was doing was wrong. From the depth of his heart, he wrote a song to God to free him from the sin of his occupation. That song is “Amazing Grace.” As Newton tells Wilberforce how he lives with 2,000 ghosts it reminds the viewer of the dedication in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” “to 60 million and more” which speaks to the number of people that were killed by slavery.
Although John Newton has written the song “Amazing Grace,” he still seems to struggle with accepting that grace and therefore will not talk about what happened on the ships.
Wilberforce and his small group eventually begin his war on the slave trade. Their strategy is to win by the will of the people. They end up with a petition with 3,000 signatories. In parliament, their opponents argue that if the slave trade ends, it will be devastating to the wealth of people they represent.
The majority of the discussion concerns wealth rather than the rights of slaves as people. The plot is complicated by the war between France and England. Pitt and Wilberforce debate whether an action against the king during a time of war is considered treason, and therefore Wilberforce must stop fighting.
The flashbacks end here, as a halt in the fight nearly kills him, and a disease called Colitis consumes him. The protagonist’s battle with colitis touched my heart because my brother is a colitis survivor. It’s a disease infrequently talked about because it rakes the colon with bloody diarrhea anywhere from 10-15 times a day. This is not shown in great detail in the film-all the audience sees is his crippling stomach pain.
After spending some time in Bath, he finds the cure for everything: the love of a woman. He is married, and she rekindles the flame in his heart to keep fighting. Once the war has ended they find that the time is right to once again bring the bill to parliament. This time however, they take a “sneakier” root, and in two years they have ended the slave trade.
This film is powerful in a unique way. The PG rating shows that there is little violence and no sex. Michael Apted (Director), did not seek to move his audience through emotions evoked by blood and gore.
The film is slow, but there are moving scenes worth catching. I was particularly moved by the scene when Newton, the old sea captain had gone blind, and talked about the line he wrote and says, “I was blind, but now I see.” He has seen the amazing grace that he wrote about. He is able to accept it, and through that acceptance is able to write his memoir. This memoir becomes a powerful tool for Wilberforce.
It’s hard to keep the characters straight with everyone wearing white wigs, but this is a slight detraction from the feel of the movie.
Amazing Grace is a “should see,” but wait for DVD.