Monday, November 19, 2007
Review by Muchacha Motorista
Listen up, people! Muchacha Motorista's back with a review of a movie she heartily recommends as worthy of your attention. Take it away, Muchacha!
Like most Americans my age, I have been well-schooled on slavery in the United States, but my knowledge of abolition in Britain was hazy and limited to the basics: that they made the slave trade illegal much sooner than we did, and that William Wilberforce was one of the main players. I was ready for a lesson, so I checked out Amazing Grace, and because I think it is worth saying right up front, I think you should too.
I admit I was a little apprehensive at first. As Sombrero Grande knows, I have a very hard time watching movies that portray people’s inhumanity toward one another. So I was prepared to be outraged and have nightmares after this film. And when the opening scene of a horse being beaten made me very uncomfortable, I figured I was in for a long ride.
But surprisingly, this movie proved its points through words, descriptions in letters and first-hand accounts, and through a visit to an empty slave ship. Moving, upsetting…but not in-your-face gore. How appropriate, using the actual tools used to end the slave trade--words--to portray the actions used to end the slave trade.
Before William Wilberforce put forth his first bill for abolition, he’d found God and was debating as to if he should continue in politics or leave and enter into religious life. His best friend, the soon-to-be-youngest Prime Minister ever, William “Billy” Pitt, is outraged at what Wilberforce is considering. He asks him, “Do you plan to use your voice to worship God, or to change the world?” Pitt calls together a group of abolitionists to convince him to not only stay in politics, but to use his persuasive place in the House to do the impossible and end the slave trade. Their call to action is gentler than Pitt’s: “We understand that you are having trouble choosing between doing the work of God and the work of the Activist. We humbly suggest you do both.”
This is one of the best things about this movie--the call to a passionate and action-filled faith; no complacent faith waiting for change to happen, looking only inward to one’s own doings. No, this is a faith that sees sins of omission--when the faithful turn a blind eye to evil--as sin nonetheless.
I won’t tell you how it ends. I mean, you already know who wins. But do you know how long it took? How hopeless the cause was from the get-go…and throughout most of the struggle? How the revolution in American fueled revolution in France, which spooked Britain and put up the biggest hurdle for their abolitionist movement? And how the slave trade was finally brought down with research, writing, words…and a little bit of cheating the system?
The acting was excellent all around. Particularly moving were Ioan Gruffud as William Wilberforce, at first witty, articulate and popular, later despairing and haunted; Yousson N’Dour as the ex-slave and best-selling author Olaudah Equaino; and Rufus Sewell as the tireless revolutionary Thomas Clarkson. Thanks to an excellent costume designer, Jenny Beavan, who studied not just portraits but also cartoons from the time to get a real sense of who these people were, the actors come across looking very much like the historical figures.
Oh, and the title, Amazing Grace…wonder where that came from? You’ve probably heard the story of the slave trader who became a Christian, quit the business and wrote the lyrics to the famous hymn. Well, it ties in here because the slave-trader-turned-rector, John Newton, happened to be William Wilberforce’s childhood pastor. The movie shows Newton speaking of the “twenty-thousand ghosts” that haunted him and sowing in Wilberforce from the beginning the moral distaste for slavery. This was the very foundation for his faith to find a place in action.
I’m not usually a DVD “extras” kind of girl, since sometimes they change my view of the movie for the worse. However, Amazing Grace is chock-full of worthwhile extras, including study guides and film clips for discussion. One exemplary extra on the disc is the documentary “How Sweet The Sound: The Story of Amazing Grace.” This is a brilliant weaving of a history lesson, a William Wilberforce documentary, a John Newton documentary, a making-of-the-film documentary, and a call to action. It helped me put a finger on something else I liked about the film: that no one is “all good” or “all evil” because these were real people. As the director says in this documentary, “There are no heroes or villains. Life is gray and complicated, but there are great things that have to be and can be done.”
Another unforgettable extra is a tour of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center given by a young (teenage), modern-day abolitionist. He leads the viewer around the center, pointing out slave quarters, the freedom flame, and a pair of shackles used for little kids. He then notes that these are not historical, but modern, and are used to chain up 5-year olds so they can be forced to roll cigarettes. This segues into a challenge to help free the over 27 million slaves that are being held against their wills right now.
I said it at the start (in case you were planning to skim through to the end this review and I don’t want you to miss it), I recommend this movie. Amazing Grace is relevant from a historical perspective, but also because of the ongoing need for passionate, action-filled people to change the world. There is still a lot of work to be done.