Monday, April 10, 2017

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: Mark Passover and Easter with AMAZING GRACE, the story of British abolitionist William Wilberforce who made his country 'great'

Now available for rental or purchase via Amazon Video, AMAZING GRACE, the evocative 2006 film that Rotten Tomatoes' critics consensus calls "Your quintessential historic biopic: stately, noble and with plenty of electrifying performances" is worth the two-hour look-back at this 18th century British version of our own 19th century Civil War. However the UK abolitionist movement, amidst centuries of empire building, resembled Martin Luther King's 20th century non-violent crusade for civil rights rather than our own guns-and-bullets conflict of the 1860's.

The film is very well directed by Michael Apted, while the estimable Steven Knight (shown at left, of Taboo, Locke, Allied, Peaky Blinders) wrote the tender, satiric, contentious screenplay that slowly unpacks William Wilberforce's long struggle against British Parliament's endless intransigence on the slavery topic, most MP's having interests that profited from the trade. In fact Britain's empire can be said to have acquired the prefix 'Great' on the backs of slaves who grew, processed, and helped distribute tobacco, sugar, cotton.

The film is stocked with best Brits led by handsome leading Welshman Ioan Gruffudd (above, from Forever, Horatio Hornblower, Titanic, Forsyte Saga, UnREAL) and includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney, Romola Garai, Rufus Sewell, Toby Jones, Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds, Youssow N'Dour and Jeremy Swift (as Wilberforce's well-read butler, who here previews his dutiful service to Dowager Countess Grantham in Downton Abbey).

Preacher John Newton's poem Amazing Grace (1772) was the moral underpinning of the abolitionist movement and is said to have been performed 10,000 times a year in the U.S., with spurts during our Civil and Vietnam Wars. In Britain, slavery existed from before Roman times (mostly conquered European populations). The human traffic in Africans began much later, commandeered by Elizabethan seafarer, Sir John Hawkins, who formed a slave-trading syndicate of merchants in the mid-1500's, launching Britain's leadership in the Atlantic slave trade.

Newton (1725-1807), above, was a ship owner and slave trader before a religious conversion led him to the ministry. He wrote: “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” We first meet him (Albert Finney) barefoot and in sackcloth, mopping the floors of his London church. Young William Wilberforce, torn between pursuing a religious life or a promising career in Parliament, has come to seek the advice of his old mentor who continues to live with the ghosts of thousands of humans whose lives he had taken or ruined.

Newton urges Wilberforce to shun a religious life and use his leverage as a politician: "Blow their filthy ships out of the water -- the planters, sugar barons of London, Liverpool, Boston, Bristol, New York -- all those streets running with blood, dysentery, puke. You won't come away from those streets clean, Wilber. You'll get filthy with it, you'll dream it." Newton founded a group known as the Clapham Sect which grew among members of Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common, a fashionable area south-west of London. A network of friends bonded together over their enlightenment views and activism, eventually aiding the passage of the Slave Trade Act banning slave trading throughout the colonies and years later the emancipation entirely of all British slaves.

Thus with the prodding of his friend and future Prime Minister, William Pitt (Cumberbatch, above, left, whose acting is so subtly fine, at moments he steals the focus from Gruffudd), and the aid of the Clapham supporters began Wilberforce's near 20-year campaign of oratory and action in the House of Commons to expose his fellow legislators to the ugliness of slavery. London had the largest Black population in Britain in the mid-1700's -- about 10,000. Having black servants was fashionable. In one depressing incident, Wilberforce is gambling in the company of the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones) who has his black coach driver hauled to the gaming table as 'capital' offered to settle his losses. To his friend Pitt, Wilberforce says bitterly: "For me, slavery is like arsenic. Each new tiny dose doubles the effect". It was their friendship from student days at Cambridge -- Pitt the master politician, Wilberforce the passionate, witty orator -- that positioned Wilberforce at the helm of the legislative process.

"It is with a heavy heart that I bring to the attention of the House a trade which degrades men to the level of brutes and insults the highest qualities of our common nature..... Conditions in Jamaica are... brutal..... Many children are scalded to death by the molten lava. Others die of exhaustion or roll into the fires in their sleep. The result in the morning is a few pounds of pure refined sugar." Wilberforce as a very young MP experienced a religious experience himself. His friend Henry Thornton, banker, economist, MP, great-grandfather of E.M. Forster (Nicholas Farrell), introduced Wilberforce to his wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai, below) and to the Clapham activists who persuaded him he could do God's work and politics too by taking up the cause of abolition in Parliament.

Year after year Wilberforce and his Clapham friends assembled new evidence, petitions, demonstrations, and first person accounts. Below center: the freed slave Olaudah Equiano (Youssow N'Dour), chains from a slave ship on the table beside him and at right, Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell).

Patriots refused sugar in their tea; renowned pottery-maker Josiah Wedgwood manufactured an official medallion for the movement (below). Their collective efforts have been referred to as the world's first grass roots human rights campaign.

But Wilberforce would submit his bill in the House of Commons and watch its defeat over and again. Below, Ciaran Hinds (Game of Thrones), is Liverpool's rabid pro-slavery MP orator, Sir Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton had earned a reputation as hated officer and butcher during the American Revolution -- sympatico with his ardent support of slavery.

Each millennia it has to be relearned: when logic and decency fail and other means must be tried, whether more subtle or more violent. In this case it was maritime lawyer, James Stephen, who came up with a clever legal maneuver that broke the logjam. Stephen called it: 'nosus decipio'-- loosely translated, 'we cheat'( the denouement of the film). And they succeeded -- the Slave Trade Act finally passed in 1807. However Wilberforce (shown below in a portrait from his day) was no liberal. Change, he believed, should come through Christianity and improvement in morals, education, and religion. He opposed unions, women anti-slavery activists, any appearance of anarchy. The essayist William Hazlitt condemned him for preaching the teaching of Christianity to savages while tolerating its worst abuses at home. However he did support prison reform, improved working conditions for chimney-sweeps and textile workers, and less severity of punishments. He died in 1833 just after learning that the final piece of legislation to abolish slavery throughout the empire was about to pass. Nearly 800,000 Africans were freed, most in the Caribbean.

Note: press HERE for the link to a description of the Atlantic Triangle Trade -- in which slaves and goods were moved between Africa, the Colonies, and Europe.

This Sunday Corner post was written by
our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman, 
but appears a day late, thanks to TrustMovie's 
current forgetful state. Sorry, Lee!

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