Last Friday was the 200th anniversary of the passage in the House of Commons of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which largely eliminated the Atlantic slave trade. More significantly, the Act laid the groundwork for the eventual abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. In less than 100 years the rest of the world followed suit.
It took some extraordinary people to eliminate an institution that had previously been unquestioned in every civilization since the dawn of history. It required men an women of great passion, courage and dedication. The movie Amazing Grace, released on the anniversary of the passage of the Act, focuses on William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) the politician who led the fight to get the Act through Parliament, a process that took almost 18 years.
This is an important and inspiring story. A movie on this subject is almost guaranteed to be fascinating. Yet some people have complained that William Wilberforce is the wrong person to use as the focal point of the movie. The problem seems to be that Wilberforce, though a great and good man, was by no means a colorful character. He was an accomplished orator and a skillful politician, but he was earnest, deeply religious and very straight-laced.
But the movie has no shortage of colorful characters. There is Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell) the fiery leader of the British abolitionists. William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch) the reforming Prime Minister, is Wilberforce’s close friend and ally. Pitt’s long-time rival Charles James Fox (Michael Gambon) the elderly leader of the radical Whigs, joins with Wilberforce in support of abolition. Most colorful of all is John Newton (Albert Finney) the former captain of a slave ship who experienced a religious conversion, became and Anglican priest and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.
The writers admit to fictionalizing some elements of the story for dramatic purposes. I noted only a few obvious discrepancies. Since Newton became an abolitionist only late in life, it is unlikely that he had much influence on Wilberforce’s views on the subject. Also, while I know very little about the British parliamentary system, I am pretty sure that we should not see a duke sitting in the House of Commons.
These quibbles aside, I found this to be a fascinating and entertaining movie and I highly recommend it.