Movie Review - Amazing Grace

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Michael Apted
Walden Media
 for thematic material involving slavery, and some mild language

Imagine a movie about a Member of Parliament in Great Britain in the late seventeen-, early eighteen-hundreds. Now… imagine it more interesting. What if this Member of Parliament spent decades of his life trying to strip thousands of men on three different continents of their livelihoods, their investments, and their very protection under British law. Ruthless, unstoppable, driven by an unnatural zeal to use legislative might to destroy an entire industry. Now, imagine that this relentless man was William Wilberforce, a Christian, an honest statesman—the Slaves’ Champion—striving his whole life to put an end to the buying and reselling of human bodies. And, if you can, imagine most of his fellow Englishmen still considering him the villain of the story.
Amazing Grace isn’t just a docudrama about some random (but important) historical event, with Quakers, lawyers and Members of Parliament sprinkled in because they’re important (but random) historical people. This is about fascinating people—fascinating history. This is about kidnapping as an industry—eleven million victims’ worth of industry—and a handful of people who thought it was evil enough to try to stop it. This is about being one man against three hundred in Great Britain’s legislative body—hated, ignored, exhausted, tormented by nightmares, dependent on painkillers, and (precisely because of all this) forcibly thrust by a scheming cousin into an acquaintance with pretty, young Barbara Spooner… who happens to be just as passionate about abolishing the slave trade as Wilberforce himself is.

Sexual Content:
Now, said Barbara does at times (well, actually, most of the time) wear some fairly bosom-revealing clothes. This is, for me, the biggest drawback to Amazing Grace. Other instances of immodesty include brief images of naked statues (too distant to be a major problem, though) and half-naked slaves.

A couple (married on screen, unmarried off screen) kisses for a split second. In a foggy dream sequence, Members of Parliament are seen carousing at a comic opera with loose women on their laps. There are brief references to whores and to girls being debauched.
Violent and Intense Content:
The filmmakers could have, justifiably in my opinion, turned this into a PG-13 movie full of graphic imagery. Instead, they kept it at a more widely accessible PG, relying mostly on descriptions—not that those descriptions aren’t graphic enough to get the point across. “In stormy weather, they take the very sickest and throw them overboard to lighten the ship’s load.”—“scalded to death in the fire”—“innocent slaves… burned alive.” Olauda Equiano, a former slave and a great leader in the abolition movement, speaks of the slaves being branded with hot irons (baring his chest to display his own scars), and tells Wilberforce that the slave traders “stuff knotted rope in the anuses of the sick to disguise the dysentery.”

There are a couple of blurred, dream-like scenes of slaves being burned (accidentally, not deliberately) in a fire, and Wilberforce, hallucinating, sees a young slave boy rattling his chains, where there is no slave boy. Trying to quit his laudanum, Wilberforce undergoes a violent attack of pain, and begins rambling in his agony. An unsaved character is seen on his deathbed.
For those who are sensitive about animals, a horse is beaten with a whip.
Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
As already mentioned, the main character is dependent on opium because of a chronic illness. He and others are seen preparing laudanum in a non-sensational way.

Everybody in this movie drinks wine socially. A couple of characters drink something a little stronger—still socially. Thomas Clarkson, perhaps the least accurately portrayed hero of the story (or, the least positively portrayed one, anyway), carries a flask about with him, and in one scene sits grieving next to the grave of an old friend, clearly drunk. Wine is used as a positive metaphor for revolution (by Thomas Clarkson, of course).
Gambling gets some time and attention at the beginning of the movie, but Wilberforce is said to have given it up later on, as a result of his conversion.
This is the second-biggest drawback for me about this movie. However, there are reference points available for the offensive language (see below). In descending order of importance: 2 definite blasphemies, 2 probable and 1 possible; 6 out-of-context instances of “hell”; 1 “b-llocks”, 3 “a--”, and 8 bl--dies. Not a vulgarity so much as a casual insult, “n-gger” is used twice (by the bad guy, of course). A passionate John Newton tells Wilberforce to use the information in his memoirs to “damn” the pro-slavery MPs.

There is some parliamentary sarcasm and mockery.
It’s surprising how little wrong there is in Amazing Grace’s worldview. Barbara briefly mentions Wilberforce’s free education bill, in a list of his many social reforms—while some of us consider the provision of education to be outside the jurisdiction of the state. Protestant John Newton, dressed in sackcloth, mopping the church floors, says, half jokingly, “I try to pretend I’m a monk, but I don’t have the will power. I’m a monk Mondays, Wednesdays.”—but he does argue Wilberforce out of the idea that political power is a less-than-holy tool for the service of God. When the mischievous cousin says they’re going to be late getting to a watering place in Bath, Wilberforce replies, “The water has been here for a million years. How can we be late?”

Amazing Grace isn’t just some textbook biography put on film for our education. And it’s not just an “inspirational” movie that’s going to make you feel like being a nicer person (…for the next fifteen minutes, anyway). This stuff isn’t trite or mushy. And neither is it some sociopolitical platform, trying to win you over to a specific cause or organization. You’re going to walk away from this one wanting to throw the next thirty years of your life into destroying the slave trade in Great Britain. But once you fully grasp the fact that the British slave trade truly is finished—once and for all—you’re left on your own to figure out what to do with all this freshly-inspired zeal for righteous causes.

If Barbara Spooner’s dress won’t bother you, and if you don’t mind muting or programming away Prime Minister Billy Pitt’s language, Amazing Grace is a Recommendable film—well-acted, well-scripted, fascinating in its depiction of a true story, accurate on the whole, and confident enough in its own quality to illuminate the religious fervor of men like William Wilberforce and John Newton, without having to worry about scaring off its secular audience. Because of some of the intensity, and in part because of the more grown-up feel of the movie, I’d recommend that parents or older siblings at least preview the film before showing it to children under ten.

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