The film is neither amazing nor does it possess any grace. Simply put, the film reduces Britain’s abolitionist movement to one man and one song. As if it were that simple. Worse yet, the tale of William Wilburforce’s crusade to ban the slave trade across the British Empire plays out amongst the hokiest of Hollywood cliches. Must all great men be inspired by beautiful women? By film’s end Amazing Grace feels like Braveheart sans warfare. That’s not a compliment.
What’s so wrong with the film?
Let’s break it down. First off, this is a film about the horrors of slavery. Yet, we are never shown these horrors. Outside of one feverdream where Wilburforce envisions a young black male – more shadow than human – being consumed by the flames of a sugar refinery fire. Being of a dream, the moment is already disconnected from reality. The fiery imagery and the horrible special effect of this soul being lost to the flames fails to terrify. It’s actually laughable. This however, is the extent to which director Michael Apted feels he should show what slavery was like. Occasionally, characters read letters or retell what they’ve seen, but cinema is about images and those images have power. So, where the heck are the images of slavery?
There aren’t any because there don’t need to be anyone. Today, we are enlightened and we all know slavery is wrong. This knowledge gives us comfort because it reduces the film to Us vs. Them. Not approving of slavery, we can fight the good fight right along with William Wilburforce and feel ever the better for being a good guy, right there with him. We can tell ourselves that were we living during that era, we too would have said no to the slave trade.
That’s total hogwash. Guys like Wilburforce are rare, as are those that helped him see the light. And yes, the pun is intended, as it were Quakers who really helped bring about the change, but they are reduced to shadowy, unexplained, strangers. If Michael Apted had any balls as a filmmaker he’d have presented the story in such a way that we might have actually sided with those that opposed Wilburforce. Apted might have taken this as an opportunity to show how a majority of people can back something that in hindsight appears so blatantly heinous and morally wrong. That or he might have managed to comment on how people today are still fighting slavery issues, be them physical or economical. Rather than pay mere lip service to the fact that slavery exists because of economical greed, Apted might have really shown how much of Britain and even America’s Empires have been built with the slave labor of others and how by giving up this cheap labor they are forced to now ship there dirty work out to other countries who care less about human rights. But, he didn’t do any of these things because when it comes down to it, Michael Apted is chickenhearted. He’s no William Wilburforce. He’s just a filmmaker transforming a heroic story into a inspirational comic book easily understood by anyone with a fourth grade education.
If you want to know how awful slavery is, go watch Addio Zio Tom. Yes, it’s an exploitation film, but you know what, slavery is exploitation. So, it’s no wonder that the horrifically graphic images in that film can turn your stomach in ways that make Roots look like a Thomas Kinkade painting. A film like that doesn’t make you feel good, but it might inspire you to not let anything like that happen again. Where as I’m sick of hearing people say that Amazing Grace is an inspiring film. How? Did it send people rushing out to protest their own countries endorsement of slave labor over seas so they could buy cheap good here at home? Did it have them writing petitions to stop torture? Were people compelled to ask their congressman why they continue to fund a phony war? Probably not. Heck, I’d be surprised if Amazing Grace even gave most white folks the courage to smile at a black stranger. All this film did was make people feel good about themselves. How selfish is that?
We don’t need this. We need films that really challenge people. One’s that use records of past heroics and civic leadership to show how today we still have issues that need to be fought for and prejudices that need to be fought against. Where is the film that questions gay marriage or lack of health care for the poor? Let’s not leave these films up to Michael Moore. Instead, let’s find a filmmaker willing to show us how cruel and ignorant we have been in the past, how we could treat each other as less than equal, or simply go along with this hate without saying anything. Let us not rest on our laurels and feel confident that if given the chance to do the right thing, we would. I look around and it’s apparent that we don’t. Just open up a newspaper if you don’t believe me.