Making the Grades
Released during Black History Month, Amazing Grace is an unheralded gem. Set in the eighteenth century, it tells the story of a young, English parliamentarian who took on the slavery trade.
William Wilberforce (Ioan Grufford), a talented singer and gifted orator, has a soft spot in his heart for animals, the underclass and beggars who come seeking a meal at his country estate. At 21 years of age, he is voted in as a member of the British legislature. As newly elected officials, he and his long-time friend, William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), who goes on to become the country's youngest ever serving Prime Minister, are idealistic and eager to generate social change. Motivated by the song Amazing Grace -- written by a former slave ship captain turned preacher (Albert Finney) -- William takes on the overwhelming mission of abolishing the human trade business that fills the government's coffers with plenty of gold.
As is to be expected, it is not a popular position to take. Members of the opposition want to override the bill rather than face the social implications. Grossly outnumbered, William begins the laborious task of winning over other members of parliament by appealing to their better natures. He is assisted in his mission by a group of itinerant religious leaders (Rufus Sewell, Youssou N'Dour, Georgie Glen) who also speak out about the vile inhumanities inflicted on the slaves.
But success doesn't come easily or quickly and William pays a heavy price for his efforts. Losing his singing voice from shouting in the House of Commons, he also suffers from failing health and is prescribed opiates to ease the pain. Luckily, a passionate and educated young woman (Romola Garai), who becomes his bride after a whirlwind courtship, reaches out to rescue him. Buoyed up by her love and support, William resumes the tedious, uphill fight.
Bringing a balanced perspective to the screen, the script explores not only the horrors of the slave trade but also the political and business reasons that made it so hard to eradicate. For many of those who supported William and his group, it was career suicide.
Along with infrequent profanities and several racial slurs, the film depicts some disturbing descriptions of slave mistreatment both onboard the ships and on the auction blocks. Yet for teens and adults, the movie offers powerful insights into the single-mindedness of one man bent on raising the social consciousness of a country. (William also became an advocate for improved working conditions for the poor, called for public education opportunities and spoke out against animal cruelty.) In turn, audiences will likely find themselves applauding the tireless efforts of this man and his growing group of abolitionists who ignited an amazing change.