2007-03-09 / Columnists


'Amazing Grace' - English Abolitionist
Review By Robert Snyder

Most Americans may not realize that Great Britain freed its slaves and abolished its slave trade decades before Abraham Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation. And this all happened while the British were still fighting to keep their colonial hold on the United States.

However, this enlightened liberation was not easily had. In fact, it was largely the gargantuan effort of House of Commons member William Wilberforce, a name many probably missed in their history books (if it was even included). Played by Welsh-actor Ioan Gruffudd in the film, "Amazing Grace," Wilberforce appears to be a perfect Hollywood historical hero. Despite his aristocrat status, he is a morally uptight abolitionist; champion of the poor, whom he feeds at his estate; early advocate of rights for animals, a menagerie of which he also has inside his home; and movie-star handsome. His problem is that he is afflicted with colitis, which saps his strength in battling the evil business interests who control the slave trade and Parliament. While Gruffudd does his darnedest to show the spiritually-driven force of Wilberforce, he never adds that all-important element of obsessive near-insanity. Peter O'Toole does it with his magnificently dense portrait of mad military genius in 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia." Of course, that's a thespian standard too high for most mortals.

Director Michael Apted and screenwriter Steven Knight have a major story to tell. Where they truly get down to it is in the crackling debate scenes at the House of Commons. Enlisted are some of the top actors in Britain and, therefore, the world: Michael Gambon as aging, but still sharp anti-slavery advocate Lord Fox; Benedict Cumberbatch, as young politically ambitious Wilberforce ally William Pitt; Ciaran Hinds as pro-slaver Lord Tarleton; and Toby Jones as the jaded Duke of Clarence, one of King George III's many sons.

Great actors also abound in other episodes. Albert Finney portrays John Newton, a monk who wrote the hymn, "Amazing Grace," to atone for his sins as a former slave-ship captain. Rufus Sewell (the nasty prince in "The Illusionist") goes against type in the role of the radical abolitionist minister, Thomas Clarkson. Romola Garai plays Wilberforce's wife, love of his life and moral compass Barbara Spooner.

Though the atrocious treatment of the slaves is touched on, more could have been made of it visually, as Steven Spielberg does in 1997's "Amistad." The most unnerving moments come from accounts by ex-slave Oloudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour) and when the Duke of Clarence offers his newly-purchased "nigger" as payment of a gambling debt to the disgusted Wilberforce.

Those interested in an oft overlooked, but historically significant move toward world freedom should not miss "Amazing Grace."

It should also be noted that Wilberforce actually eradicated slavery through a clever political trick. Here's a far too rare example of political slickness used for the good.

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