The Abolitionist Before Abe
Despite the nature of political and social movements as drastic as the abolishment of slavery, which seem to necessarily require the cooperation of a great number of people, all the credit for perhaps the most humanitarian act of the past millennium falls on one historical figure: Abraham Lincoln. Michael Apted's "Amazing Grace," however, proves that not only were there plenty of other people willing to stand up and speak out against the evil practice, but that they were doing it long before Lincoln himself was even born.
This is not to say each of those individuals receives equal credit either, nor is it to claim their views represented, at least originally, anything more than a fleeting minority. But now having seen the film, I recognize the impression I was incorrectly under before, that no one really cared about the institution of slavery until around the 1830's. This seemed a logical conclusion considering, from what I remember of history courses, that virtually all the good, faithful, religious people from England emigrated to America, and that even in a country born on such an honorable foundation, it still took nearly 100 years before slavery was successfully opposed. What real accomplishments, if any, could have been made before the 1800's on such an issue, and what difference could they really make if the brutal practice still continued for so long afterward?
The answer lies in the actual collection of slaves from Africa in the 18th century that produced the slave population southern plantation owners would later relish. And, more importantly, the answer lies with William Wilberforce, the English activist who devoted his entire life towards getting a single bill passed through parliament: the abolition of the deadly slave trade itself.
Wilberforce, played brilliantly by Ioan Grufford, is a talented politician overcome with the spirit of God, who is at first unsure whether to indeed engage in politics or simply spread the word of the lord with his life. After close friend and fellow politician Pitt the Younger, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, explains to Wilberforce he can do both, the two set out to change the world, drafting and consequently fighting for votes to pass a bill against the slave trade.
Those votes are incredibly hard to come by in a parliament dominated by dukes and lords much older than they. Most of the film is indeed spent arguing their case in the parliament chambers, their arguments and pleas drowned out by the mumblings, laughs, and downright rude remarks of the chamber's fellow members. Their biggest opposition is the monetary value generated by the work of slaves, on which many of the country's businesses thrive, articulated ever so often by the ever so evil Lord Tarleton, played by Ciaran Hinds. Tarleton's shorter sidekick is the Duke of Clarence, played by Toby Jones, and the majority of the other members apparently just vote however these two decide.
It's strangely fascinating to watch how passionate and dedicated Wilberforce must plead his case in the movie only to see it fall on deaf ears. The ideals and values on which he builds his arguments are all but embedded in our society today, yet it's nearly impossible to convince a sane and able-minded 18th century English citizen that something as blatantly evil as slavery really is wrong. It's mind-boggling. Even worse, not only do they deny Wilberforce's claim, they go as far as to form a logical argument that slavery is a actually a good thing, at one point even arguing the slaves themselves are in favor of it. As Lord Tarleton claims late in the film, "We still have no evidence that any slave opposes it."
Take any single scene from "Amazing Grace" and it's probably relatively boring, but together it's a very accomplished film. You're never bombarded with images of slaves being beaten by their masters, nor do you ever even see a plantation for that matter, as I believe director Apted knew it wasn't necessary to prove to the viewer that slavery was evil. That's just a given, and I for one appreciate it. The romance between Wilberforce and wife Barbara, played by Romola Garai, is never over the top and does not overshadow the story's more important themes. Finally, veteran Albert Finney gives a memorably performance as John Newton, Wilberforce's preacher growing up, who spends his later life in virtual solitude mourning the 20,000 slaves he saw die in his own personal escapades as captain of a slave ship in his younger days. Newton also happens to be, as if you didn't see it coming, the author of the incredibly famous hymn, "Amazing Grace," which is sung several times in the movie.
Ultimately, this film is just as much about perseverance as it is humility, because Wilberforce has every chance in his journey to just give up and still be admirably remembered. But he knows he shouldn't, and he never does, and as a result he is remembered, and not just today, but perhaps even, no pun intended, when we've been here ten thousand years.