Contrary to what its title suggests, “Amazing Grace” isn’t really about the origins of the immortal Christian hymn. Neither is it, directly, about the British slave trade. Instead it’s about the tireless campaign of William Wilberforce, Member of Parliament, to abolish the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by arguing against it on the floor of the House of Commons and by bringing the horrors of the institution to public awareness. But by centering on Wilberforce (played with passion but also with a scrubbed, boy-band-ish gloss by Iaon Gruffudd) “Amazing Grace” deflects the pain and humiliation intrinsic to its subject matter, relegating its only actual African voice to one underdeveloped side character.
“Amazing Grace”‘s current appearance on movie screens is opportunistic in a number of respects: released during Black History Month and nearly coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the passing of the Abolition Bill created by Wilberforce, the film has been geared toward liberal and religious audiences alike in casting a spotlight on both a crusade against social injustice and the Christian devotion of its hero. As “Amazing Grace” presents events, these strands converged for Wilberforce in the abolitionist cause: Wilberforce is inspired by mentor John Newton (Albert Finney), the slave trader turned minister who wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” to stay in politics after considering leaving it for an ascetic life. With the help of abolitionist movement leaders and William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), friend and Prime Minister, Wilberforce battles for his bill but is met with resistance by a government whose representatives have interests in businesses dependent on the trade. Predictably, the film is structured in classic underdog-triumphs-over-adversity mode-the struggle is uphill until the fear of sedition generated by Britain’s war with France subsides and a well-timed parliamentary push allows for Wilberforce’s dream to become a reality.
Everybody wins, it seems, except those wanting their middlebrow fare to display, at the very least, the semblance of a spine. When I write “Wilberforce’s dream,” I only report the film’s representation of abolitionism: “Amazing Grace” makes the issue solely its protagonist’s burden. Wilberforce is saddled with worsening health, an opium addiction, and a broken spirit when the cause is at its nadir, but overcomes all by marrying a beautiful woman (Romola Garai) who simultaneously functions in the film as plot point and the excuse for a needless flashback structure. While director Michael Apted (heavily favoring a shot-reverse shot style conducive to pedantic exchanges of Steven Knight‘s dialogue) dotes on Wilberforce’s personal deliverance with loving care, the film’s sole African character, former slave and author Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), receives what seem like no more than ten minutes of screen time. We learn little to nothing of his past, nor do we see anything of the nightmarish conditions suffered by other Africans. Aside a couple of insignificant flashes, virtually nothing is depicted of the experience of slavery – an unacceptable absence for a film that goes out of its way to mention Wilberforce’s arrival at the truth by seeing it with his own eyes.
Even if the film is an educational summary about Wilberforce’s legacy and the tangled politics of his era, “Amazing Grace”‘s antiseptic hagiographic mode hasn’t earned it the right to the title and music of a song that had become so closely linked to a people’s emancipation. And where are these people when the story ends on the floor of the House in 1807, the Abolition Bill finally voted into law and Wilberforce extolled for his superhuman efforts? Nowhere.