When Amazing Grace – Michael Apted’s rich bio-pic of the political campaigner William Wilberforce – was released last year (to coincide with the bi-centennial of the end of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade) it came in for the usual braying criticism from the liberal media.
The New York Times for instance, claimed that the movie “prettifies” the slave trade (yes, there are no bloody expositions of whipped and cowering captives) and the UK Guardian whinged that it is a “white man’s movie” – I suppose because the role of Africans in overturning the trade is largely unmentioned. You could also argue that the firmly British locations (the furthest the film travels is Yorkshire) mean that the question of slavery is turned into an English moral question, rather than an epic struggle for those suffering in Caribbean. But you know what? Amazing Grace is not really about that. As the inestimable Libby Purves says in the London Times:
The focus is on the British campaign for good reasons: this is a political film. It is about vigorous parliamentarians in a vigorous Parliament, sacrificing health and peace to fight a ten-year battle for human rights. It is about principled people arguing against pragmatic fat-cats who made up excuses ranging from the “God-given” trade wind direction to the need for Newfoundland fishermen to have someone to sell fish-heads to……
A cast of British all-stars (you’ve gotta love anyone flaunting the name Benedict Cumberbatch – he plays canny Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger) gambol through history with a witty and thoughtful script. The costumes are formidable, the locations beautiful. My favourite scene takes place in Bakers Quay, part of the Gloucester docks on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. Here it plays stand in for the East India Docks in London, where Wilberforce and his allies conduct a stealth attack on upper class fops, re-routing their hoity, bewigged pleasure cruise past the foul, stinking hulk of a slave ship. Another memorable scene has Quaker abolitionists (admirably led by the mad-eyed Rufus Sewell) dump slave shackles on Wilberforce’s dinner table.
Yes, the telling of Amazing Grace comes at us from a unique angle. That doesn’t make it any less impactful.