Lost in the Movies: The Amazing Grace and Amazing Grace

The Amazing Grace and Amazing Grace

Taken together, these two 2006 films - with almost the exact same title and similarly themed stories - make an illuminating double feature. Amazing Grace is a big-budget historical drama, directed by veteran filmmaker Michael Apted. Crackling with atmosphere and lively performance, this biopic follows William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the British MP who finally convinces Parliament to abolish the slave trade following a 15-year crusade. One of his inspirations is the ex-slave trader-turned-penitential pastor John Newton (Albert Finney), composer of the famous verse "Amazing Grace" which captured both his shame and his religious conversion.

The Amazing Grace is Nigeria's first film shot on 35mm and despite some scenic photography and quality performances, it's generally as unpolished as Amazing Grace is slick. The Nigerian film focuses on an earlier period in the life of John Newton (Nick Moran), as he captains a slave ship to West Africa, suffers a crisis of conscience, and falls in love (Pocahontas-style) with native Ansa (Mbong Ogungide). The narrative is heavily fictionalized, and one of its more absurd conceits is that Newton lifted the melody for "Amazing Grace" from a tribal song, when in fact the melody was imposed on Newton's verse in 1835, long after he died; it was derived from a very un-African tune called "New Britain."

Yet if the detail is historically false it does point to a larger purpose: director and co-writer Jeta Amata clearly wants to present the awakening of European conscience as a collaboration between Africans and Europeans, rather than a wholly white achievement. In this, even more than style or story focus, the film differs from Apted's Amazing Grace which, without apology, presents the forces of African liberation (excepting only one minor character who dies before the goal is attained) as almost entirely white-skinned and well-off. Since slaves and even ex-slaves were largely (and rather obviously) disenfranchised at the time, there's no doubt some historical accuracy in play - although one has to wonder why Olaudah Equiano, that aforementioned exception, plays such a tiny role onscreen compared to the other abolitionists.

The film succeeds quite well on its own terms - Amazing Grace is dramatic, moving, often witty, and captivating in its depiction of a society in transformation. Yet taken as some sort of grand statement on abolition, something does seem to be missing, and it doesn't help that virtually every mainstream film dealing with slavery or civil rights focalizes the action through a sympathetic white protagonist (even when doing so requires reinventing history, as with Mississippi Burning or last year's The Help). I found Amazing Grace fascinating politically - it goes out of its way to stress Wilberforce's parallels with contemporary left-wingers (he's not only a bleeding-heart when it comes to human rights and government activism, he's also youthfully unkempt and a lover and protector of animals too). Yet the screenplay by Steven Knight also makes certain to emphasize Wilberforce's rejection of Thomas Clarkson's (Rufus Sewell's) Jacobin rhetoric, which is presented as prima facie objectionable rather than as something Wilberforce considers before rejecting.

Amazing Grace's philosophy is emphatically liberal rather than radical, celebrating reform over revolution and suggesting that activism is or should be fun. Not without doubts, of course: Wilberforce scolds future wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) for talking about the anti-slavery campaign as if it's a lark; after all, politics is more about painful social change than personal style, right? Yet ultimately Spooner's spontaneity and gaiety reinvigorate Wilberforce's campaign. In a speech at the end of the movie, Lord Charles Fox (portrayed with delightful panache by Michael Gambon) claims that, while Napoleon may be considered a "great man," he must go to bed at night haunted by memories of the wars he has caused; meanwhile Wilberforce can finally sleep soundly, having achieved a truly noble aim. A movie devoted to a physically and emotionally grueling fight to end a massive institution shouldn't be accused of making it look easy, yet in the end Wilberforce does get to see the pot at the end of the rainbow.

As spectacle, Amazing Grace is very entertaining (I can't agree with critics who found it boring or undramatic) yet as human drama it's ultimately The Amazing Grace which is more compelling. In Amata's film, the European characters are all a shaded mix of good and bad, with ruthless slave-driver Oliver (Scott Cleverdon) alternately playing bad cop to Newton's more conscience-afflicted captain and providing common sense alternatives to Newton's hypocritical and racist rationalizations. Meanwhile, the African characters (including Ansa and Etim, played by Fred Amata) are painted in more noble colors, yet they are also shown to be human - there's a village leader who almost kills Newton and Ansa and a slave-trader whose motivation mixes greed and survival.

The romantic spark between Newton and Ansa is also surprisingly effective, in large part due to Obdungide's winning and luminous screen presence, although their dialogue sometimes stretches credulity (and could captured and confused slaves really pick up on English so quickly?) - as does the convoluted passage in which Newton and Ansa, for reasons that remain unclear, convince a number of Africans that the slavers just want to take them along on a kind of work-exchange program. Yet if The Amazing Grace wants to correct a skewed historical perception (of African slaves who remain objects of pity, no less objects for that), it is less interested in using facts to do so, and more intrigued by the possibilities of what Oliver Stone once called "the countermyth." Myths and countermyths both can carry the sting of truth and in The Amazing Grace this truth can be seen in the humanity of both slaves and captors, set at odds by historical circumstances yet still fundamentally the same creature under differently-hued skin.

This truth can also be found in the disturbing shade of trouble and tragedy hovering over Newton even after the film closes, all the way into his appearance in Apted's Amazing Grace as an old man still tormented by the voices of his previous victims. To me this feels more honest than the notion of laying one's head down to rest after a job well-done, even if Newton's famous lyrics suggest otherwise.

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