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Movie Review: Amazing Grace — Amazing Movie

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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 1970-1972).

Many of us have heard of John Newton, the former slave-trade ship captain who became a Christian minister and 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 in 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 third 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, and Dr. Martin Luther King 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), 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 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 occasionally 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 quietly 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 assault on our common humanity.

A good source for current issues regarding slavery today can be found at the appropriately-named Wilberforce Central. 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.

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  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    I thought the movie was quite “talky,” almost demonstrating the problem of “telling, not showing,” but after the first few minutes of over-expository dialog, it picked up.

    A friend of mine described the movie as “a good movie about a great story,” and your review seems to support that, since it’s as much or more about the story as the movie itself!

    Me, I loved the movie, but yeah, a large part of that is that I love Wilberforce. He was an anti-war, animal-right activist, drug addict — a Christian hippie two centuries out of time!

  • http://www.stormwindministries.com Neil Mammen

    It is truely sad that the makers of such a fine movie have no experience in marketing. Their ads on TV are useless and no one I talked to seem to realize that this movie was NOT about the “guy who wrote the song” but about freeing the Slaves. The former being the answer I got when I ask people what they think the movie is about. When they realize this is a movie about freeing the slaves most people are suddenly interested in seeing it. How sad that Walden Media who created such a moving work of art hired marketeers with absolutely no marketing experience. This could have been a movie as big as Schindler’s List or Malcom X. History Teachers would have taken their kids to see it. All the Hollywood elite would have found it neccessary to praise it lest they be considered racists. Even the Acadamy would have been forced to consider it for some sort of an nomination for an Oscar. All Walden Media had to do was add a tag line like: The First Fight to Free the slaves. If anyone knows how to get hold of Micheal Flaherty…please pass this on. It’s not too late yet.

  • Mark Lam

    Art void of morality and decency can only be appreciated by those who embrace immmorality or take sin very lightly. The problem with Hollywood today is that it recklessly indulges the auidences with what they want. Films glorifying Pedophilles, senseless torture and mutalitation, profanity, homosexuality, serial killers, gansters, sex and deceit are accepted my maintream audience as perfectly harmless or beautiful expressions of art and entertainment. A twisted child molester would praise a movie such as Hostel 5, Saw III, or Texas Chain Saw Masacre 8 that shows children getting rape and mutilated. The ivy league film critic may deride anyone critizing such a movie by asking the question about how dare anyone decide what are acceptable moral values. Twenty years ago those who laughed at the absurdity of J.T Chick depiction of end time human depravity are realizing how naive and ignorant they were back then.

    What does all this have do to with the movie Amazing Grace? Like movies of the past when the audiences were more likely to embrace Biblical values – the only values that matter in the universe, Amazing Grace not only brings back those vaules but does it in a a well edited, brilliantly acted and scripted fashion. It has one of the best Screenplays in modern cinema. There hasn’t been a movie of this quality since Chariots of Fire. You know this is a movie worth watching when your Weekly city paper – Metro, Willamette Weekly hate it so much you can sense them foaming at the mouth when you read their worthless reviews. This is a Phil 4:8 movie. Paul would have maybe enjoy this movie.

    “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

  • http://reviewingwhatever.blogspot.com/2007/03/amazing-grace.html Laura

    Hi. I cited your article in my own movie review. Thanks, and check it out.

  • Ken Hastings

    As well as all the positive comments about this movie, the WRITING is superb!