Science, People and Politics, Volume 2, 11.03.07. First posted 02.30 g.m.t.
Second and final posting, 10.00 g.m.t.

Slavery, cruelty and Amazing Grace

by Helen Gavaghan

A review of Michael Apted's portrayal of the abolitionist, William Wilberforce.

The premiere of Amazing Grace was shown 9th November, 2007 at the National Media Museum*.

Amazing Grace is a depressing film, and its subject matter is too hard for me, living as I do in a liberal democracy with a social welfare system, to grasp. But there was a time not so long ago when raiding parties from what we now call European Countries plucked human beings from their homes and chosen courses of life, inserted them into tiny confined spaces and transported them in pain and stench to another country so that they could be the property of other human beings, and as property be treated as one would treat a robot, to switch on or off and without asking their consent. These people lived waiting for death, not in desire for death but with the knowledge that from health and family and future they had been without warning or discussion snatched and had become cattle for the amusement and use of others, with death only a heartbeat away. As slavers crossed the Oceans these people were innocently living their lives, having no knowledge that like the Martians in War of the Worlds aliens were silently approaching who would destroy them.

Few living in the UK today can know what that means. The film says that 11 million Africans experienced this fate, some thrown alive and ill into the Ocean to lighten the ship's load.

Enslavement from superior force enforced with cruelty, twin pans of Britannia's balancing act only 200 to 300 years ago. Not only of Britannia, of course, but because Amazing Grace is about those who owed allegiance to Britannia and about how they (it could so easily have been we, not they) both enslaved others and fought slavery, so Britannia can absorb this critique.

Slavery and cruelty are two different issues. It is possible to have well fed eunuch slaves living in luxury who have more power over other human beings than I, who am a free woman, will ever have in this world, but who still are the property of another human being. And it is possible to live in a liberal democracy such as the United States with all your freedoms intact and to be abused and treated cruelly and to be ill and feel hopeless. Yet still slavery, the act that plucks you from your life and takes your freedom to choose and live your life, is worse.

So my quarrel with the film is that by conflating the two - slavery and cruelty - and concentrating on cruelty as the predominant device to heighten the audience's understanding of the issue of slavery the film masks the obscenity of slavery. This is because cruelty is an element in every human soul from slave to free woman or Queen, and through the ages and across the continents, in small petty ways and in skin flaying outright criminality.

Slavery is different. I do not know what underlies slavery. It is not merely a subspecialty of cruelty.

What is slavery in practice? It is when another human being decides they know how you, known to them or not, should live your life and abuses the power they have to change the course of your chosen life, deprives you of freedom and your right to chose and live your life in your time and place and to be: then they have enslaved you.They have taken your birthright. They might feed you, cloth you, give you food and water, but you are no longer human. They have stolen your right to live the life that was your life according to your own choices and in the time and place to which you were born. That act of enslavement negates the individual's birthright.

Perhaps that is why those running the slave ships were able to throw living human beings to a slow death of conscious hopelessness in trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific waters. Did they smile as they did so? Did they ever again wonder what the human life they had treated as detritus might have had to offer to one other loved and loving human being, or perhaps to humanity? Did they count the broken minds as they threw them into the unforgiving waters? Did they hear any murmur of protest from souls left to die and to experience in full knowledge and total isolation the wait for death from which there was no escape, even though in any sane world it was not their time to die. These were not natural deaths. This was kidnap, torture, and murder by human beings dehumanising other humans.

What did the detritus that used to be human think? Last full Moon I was a woman, planning marriage, building a home, struggling with my love for a man of another tribe, shaping pots, cooking and creating. Now soon I will be dead. Beauty, joy, love, aspiration are no more. There is nothing now. It is cold.

That is what Amazing Grace is about.

But the subject is tackled so that it does not offend, and there are no inescapable, gruesome visual scenes. Children learn of the innate compassion of William Wilberforce when in the opening shot he stops his carriage to protest the beating of a horse. Adults learn of slavery in simple inoffensive, non-lurid ways. Only the aural assault of Albert Finney's memories, as a repentant Captain of a slave ship, and spoken to his secretary, cannot be escaped. Finney speaks his words as a master craftsman. He is a concert pianist playing his voice for peak performance.

As William Pitt the Younger Benedict Cumberbatch acts honestly, but the screenplay gives only a glancing hint of the master politician at work. Imagine: Charles Fox, William Pitt the Younger, William Wilberforce, Napolean Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson - that was not a teddy bears' picnic. I found the scenes in which Wilberforce acted with boyish enthusiasm to be irritating. I fail to see how a tradesman from Hull with apparently a large fortune could possibly be a dewy-eyed innocent in the world of international commerce.

I wish, too, I understood the cinematic references of the marriage scene. I feel sure there must be one. Pitt's death scene is powerful. At last one sees the result of adult politics at play and how public idealism and hard work behind the scenes changes the world. And it was a delight to hear the creator of the sinking fund suggesting that it would be better if Wilberforce were to eat some of his pets.

The UK National Media Museum in Bradford was, until November 2006, the National Museum for Photography, Film and TV.

Dateline insignificant typo corrected 25th April, 2013. Dates and times unchanged.


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