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I Bet You Didn’t See… Amazing Grace

Updated: May 13

Directed by: Michael Apted

Screenplay by: Steven Knight

Starring: Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Ciaran Hinds, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N’Dour, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, Benedict Cumberbatch

Released: September 16th, 2006

My Rating: 8/10

Contains Spoilers!!!

Amazing Grace is based on the true story of William Wilberforce, the leading name of the Abolitionists in Britain in the 1780s. Named after the hymn which, as I found out in my watching of the film and confirmed through further research, was a poem written in 1772 by John Newton. Newton was a slave ship captain in the mid-1700s after having been a slave himself. Some years later he converted to Christianity in such a devoted way he renounced the slave trade, became ordained and was a prominent abolitionist. The film portrays him as William Wilberforce’s mentor, although in truth, he was more like a political ally. In his later years he wrote poems including “Amazing Grace”.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Amazing Grace, John Newton, 1772

The film starts with Wilberforce telling his future wife, Barbara Spooner, about his early campaigns for abolishing the slave trade and once the flashbacks catch up this point the film moves on and follows the ‘present’ cast to the films ending. I won’t tell you too much of what happens, but I am sure you can all guess.

Wilberforce (front left) and Pitt were close friends

What I found impressive about Amazing Grace is that the story focuses very well on the individual relationships and the progression of people’s beliefs. Early on, the abolitionists are laughed at, and business is the most important thing for the progression of the British Empire, although I think that was a cover for those politicians and Lords/Dukes with investments in the slave trade. It’s quite a good commentary with regards to the modern day, with the Black Lives Matters movement and the numerous cases of racial inequality and injustices being reported over the last couple of years. You have people on several sides of the viewpoint, but ultimately one side needs to win – everybody matters. Wilberforce puts this point forward in a brilliant scene where, after inviting important people to an event in Bristol to promote his campaign, sails past their ship where they are enjoying afternoon tea on a slave ship:

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a slave ship. The Madagascar. It has just returned from the Indies where it delivered 200 men, women, and children to Jamaica. When it left Africa, there were 600 on board. The rest died of disease or despair. That smell – is the smell of death… Remember that smell. Remember the Madagascar! Remember, that God made men equal.

Rufus Sewell is dynamic as Thomas Clarkson

There is quite the cast in this film which adds to the quality. Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) plays Wilberforce, Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) as William Pitt, Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich) as John Newton, Michael Gambon (The Harry Potter Series) as Charles James Fox, Rufus Sewell (The Holiday) as Thomas Clarkson and Toby Jones (Infamous) as William, Duke of Clarence are among the names that are behind the film. Ioan Gruffudd is brilliantly passionate in the lead role, while Benedict Cumberbatch makes an impact as the new Prime Minister Pitt the Younger (this was only his third major film) and Rufus Sewell is the progressive activist who mirrors Gruffudd’s character perfectly.

Amazing Grace was made to commemorate and celebrate the two-hundred-year anniversary of the slave trade being abolished (sorry, the writing led to this), and I think the film does justice to thank William Wilberforce and his friends for their efforts in stopping what was a global horror. Sad to say slavery still exists today. It also brings Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa, as he was also known) to light.

Equiano (Youssou N'Dour) and Wilberforce (Gruffudd)

Equiano was a slave in America who managed to purchase his freedom in 1766. He would go on to chronicle his life as a slave in The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano and joined Wilberforce as an abolitionist. He doesn’t have a large part in the film which, while disappointing in as much he could have been a huge figure in the movement, is because he would have been seen as a second-class citizen throughout British society, even by some abolitionists. Wilberforce and co. take Equiano in in the film and he is very close with Thomas Clarkson (Sewell). Their friendship is shown in a powerful but simplistic moment in a cemetery. If I say anymore, I’ll give something away.

Finney as John Newton (left) after his conversion

The late Albert Finney plays John Newton who, by the end of the film, is in his twilight years. John Newton lived to see slavery abolished in his lifetime. He died a few months afterwards. Finney shows the fear of God in his portrayal, regretting every minute spent mistreating slaves and, in Finney’s iconic voice, puts that across in such a powerful scene:

I wish I could remember all their names. My 20,000 ghosts, they all had names, beautiful African names. We’d call them with just grunts, noises. We were apes, they were human.

Amazing Grace is more powerful than I think it is given credit for, and I think it still has resonance today. It makes sure you know how those in power favour what suits them, and what the cost of that can be. But it also celebrates those that changed their mind and reminds us that you are allowed to change your mind. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind when you realise that you are wrong.

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