The Beginning of the End (of the Slave Trade)

Slavery is a topic that tends to bring up very passionate arguments today. For the most part, a great disgust for the topic is most prominent. However, opposition to slavery has not always been normal: the process which led to the end of legal slavery began with the British Abolitionist Movement and the subsequent abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the events of which are depicted in Amazing Grace. The film shows the obstacles of British abolitionists in the late 1700s through a cleverly constructed non-linear plotline and a relatively accurate portrayal of the events.

Amazing Grace follows William Wilberforce, a member of the House of Commons in the late 1700s, and his movement to put a stop to the Atlantic slave trade. The film uses a non-linear format to present his thirty-year battle with the British Parliament and the numerous people and obstacles set against his cause. Wilberforce’s efforts seem to finally be squashed out when the film starts, but as he back tracks his previous efforts he is uplifted with a renewed will to end the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Michael Apted, the director of Amazing Grace, took many artistic liberties with his retelling of Wilberforce’s crusade to abolish the Atlantic Slave Trade. However, they do not significantly take away from the story and the underlying message of perseverance and morality. The most obvious of Apted’s artistic liberties is the non-linear timeline of the film. It begins later in Wilberforce’s life, after he has given up on abolitionism and his health is severely declining, then flashes back to the beginning of his movement in the House of Commons. The film makes great use of this format: on one hand, the film’s format follows Wilberforce from the point shown in the beginning of the film and on the other, it retells what led up to that beginning scene. This method of story-telling, while confusing for some, allows the viewer to witness multiple sides of Wilberforce at one time, rather than a straight-forward progression of his character.

The beginning shows a very depressed and even relatable version of Wilberforce: his health is declining, he has lost all hope in his cause, he is in near-constant pain, and he seems on the verge of giving up on life entirely. This is contrasted by the younger version of him, arguing quite passionately in the House of Commons fifteen years earlier. At that point in Wilberforce’s life he was young, driven, and full of conviction. The juxtaposition of the compassion of his youth and his lack of will to go on just fifteen years later is resonating and brings a singular sort of humanity to Wilberforce, and to the British Abolitionist Movement itself. If Wilberforce had been unmovable and confident in his ability to eventually win over Parliament that would, frankly, be very unrealistic and would likely raise many more eyebrows at such an inaccurate representation. The effect of the non-linear timeline is also apparent further on in the film, such as when Wilberforce and his future wife take a walk in the Thorntons’ garden. During this scene, which takes place in the timeline set forth by the opening scene, Barbara asks Wilberforce to recount tales of his fight for slave trade abolishment. His reluctance is obvious, but then Barbara says to him, “It seems to me, that if there is a bad taste in your mouth, you spit it out. You don’t constantly swallow it back.” This and the subsequent flashback serve as the turning point in Wilberforce’s life as depicted in Amazing Grace. In this scene, as he tells Barbara of his youth and remembers his abandoned convictions, his previous hope is renewed, a determination he had previously lacked is then brought forth. This is just one case in which the flashback sequences are valuable to the plot and the flow of the film, as well as for Wilberforce and Barbara’s character development.

A significant aspect of the film is the representation of the British Abolitionist Movement: the movement is what drives the plot and the characters, the focus of the film other than Wilberforce’s role in the movement. Apted does not sugar coat what Wilberforce is fighting against, nor does he diminish the opposition and its effect on the abolitionists. Apted shows quite plainly how the odds were set against the abolitionists from the start. Parliament opposed the end of the slave trade, most significantly for economic reasons but partially for more deplorable reasons. The Duke of Clarence, for instance, sees slaves as a status symbol, an object to tote around to show off his wealth much like one might do with jewelry or fine clothes. He refers to the slave he purchased as “my nigger” in the flippant manner someone might refer to their purse. When he tells a fellow to go “fetch my nigger” in the pub after the initial House of Commons scene, the phrase sounds more like he is telling them to get him his umbrella. From this exchange, as well as the Duke of Clarence’s willingness to gamble away his slave, it is obvious that his objections to the abolitionist movement are not seated in concern for the economic wellbeing of the people who live in port towns who rely on the slave trade for their livelihood. Rather, his objections lie in a selfish sense of superiority perpetuated by his advantaged upbringing.

Although those who claim economic concern are the root of their opposition to the ending of the slave trade, such as Lord Tarleton, they are just as deplorable as the Duke of Clarence. This group is essentially agreeing that the wealth of slave ship owners is more important than the health of Africans. On the surface, their agenda seems to be based on worry for the people who live off the slave trade: ship captains, auctioneers, and the like. However, just by declaring that the upkeep of the Atlantic Slave Trade is acceptable so that citizens in Liverpool will be able to hold a job, they are also renouncing the value of numerous African’s lives. Lord Tarleton and the other members of Parliament who opposed abolitionism for economic reasons truly were no better than the Duke of Clarence. Apted’s inclusion of both types is significant for pointing out the injustice of supporting the slave trade, as well as the intolerable act of covering up their contempt for a group of people behind concern for another.

Despite the qualities of Amazing Grace, there were some low points that somewhat took away from the experience of watching the film. Most significant is the lack of visible differences of the characters between scenes set later in the timeline and scenes at the start. This aspect makes it difficult to follow the story of the film and know how some events are or are not related. This, combined with the fact that the film is based on historical events, would make some viewers have a difficult time watching and enjoying the film, as well as getting the underlying message.

As with nearly any film, Amazing Grace has positive and negative qualities. However, the subject matter is something valuable to have knowledge of and is presented in a fascinating and unconventional manner. It is not the best film, of its type or in general, but it is well worth a chance and may possess some parallels to more familiar modern issues.

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