March 1, 2007


NEW FEATURE: C&L will periodically review movies we feel are pertinent and relevant to the overall viewpoint of this website. In other words, political in nature, progressive in tone and hopefully meaningful in the contemporary media climate.

"Amazing Grace," Apted's new film, which opened nationally on Friday, tells the awe inspiring story of William Wilberforce and how one man's uninterrupted passion actually changed the world. Based on the true-life story of Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a leader of the British abolition movement, the film chronicles the intense political struggle to end the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

Along this journey, he meets intense opposition from fellow members of Parliament who feel the slave trade and the British economy are one and the same. Wilberforce is supported by among others, John Newton (Albert Finney); a reformed slave ship captain who penned the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace."

"Newton was a sea captain," explains Finney, "who profited from the slave trade until, aged 45, he suffered a crisis of conscience and left the sea to enter the church. There he remained and wrote over 200 hymns including Amazing Grace."

A Christian when Christians were Christians, Wilberforce, in his early 20's, was drawn to the church and wrestled with the idea of making it his life's work. After much reflection he pragmatically concluded that he could do more as a politician/activist.

"He was a single-minded man who kept pursuing his goal, and plucked success from the jaws of defeat. To most people at the time the idea of abolishing the slave trade was ludicrous - like someone suggesting that we abandon the internal combustion engine right now!" explains screenwriter Steven Knight.

Told beautifully with fully fleshed out flashbacks and wrapped around Wilberforce's profoundly intellectual/romantic relationship with Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai) the film takes us on a journey from Wilberforce's college days with best friend William Pitt (who would go on to become the youngest Prime Minister in English history) to his death bed in 1833.

"William Wilberforce and William Pitt were both very young men, under thirty, when they took on the British establishment to bring about the abolition of the slave trade," tells Michael Apted, "like Kennedys and their Camelot court were to America in the early sixties."

What Apted has created here (and all the critics have apparently missed) is a historical period piece with immense relevance to today's situation. The slave trade represents the Iraq war of its day. As most of the modestly budgeted costume drama twirls around the machinations of the British Parliament, it can be reasonably compared to the verbal masturbation we as Americans see in our own Congress and the British view in their contemporary Parliament. For just like in 1807, in 2007 the Neros fiddle while Rome burns.

This explanation would not hold water were it not for the intense progressive filmmaking of Mr. Apted over the past quarter century.
Michael Apted is an English filmmaker of both documentaries and dramatic films. You might not know his name. But you know his films. He began working in film as a researcher for the British Granada Television and soon became established as an investigative reporter and TV director of the news series World In Action. In 1962, as a documentary filmmaker, he created the acclaimed "7 UP" series tracking the lives of 14 British kids every 7 years, from then to today. "49 Up" was released in 2005.
In 1980, he directed his first American feature. A little beauty called, "Coal Miner's Daughter," which garnered 7 Academy nominations, including Sissy Spacek's Oscar for portraying country singer Loretta Lynn. What appeared to be a straightforward biopic actually revealed an American culture that allowed 13-year-old girls to legally wed in complete poverty and produce five children by age 20.

"Critical Condition," (1987) a deeply under appreciated comedy, demonstrated what happens when a black con man (Richard Pryor) takes over a big city hospital.

(The politics of the medical business would return again in 1996 with the grisly thriller "Extreme Measures," starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker.)

"Gorillas In The Mist," starring Sigourney Weaver followed. Released in 1988, it received 5 Oscar nominations. The story of Dian Fossey and her attempts to save endangered apes was actually a message- driven biopic. It served as a huge boost to then fledgling animal rights movement.

The documentary, "Incident at Oglala" released in 1992, took us back to 1975 on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Two FBI agents were killed in a wild shootout with a group of Native Americans. Only one, Leonard Peltier was found guilty. The film suggests he was framed. (Interestingly, Peltier's name came to the surface again just last week in the media wrestle, which saw David Geffen denounce the Clintons in favor of Barak Obama. It was pointed out that Geffen's break with the Clintons occurred in 2000 when Clinton refused a request by Geffen to pardon Peltier in favor of convicted embezzler Marc Rich.)

Later that same year, Apted directed, "Thunderheart," starring Val Kilmer about the same subject matter.

In 1994, "Nell," starring Jodie Foster as a muted wild child, demonstrated the powerlessness of women and what it's like to be a misunderstood young female in the male dominated world of sophisticated adults.

In 1999, Michael Apted was quite stunned to learn that he was being sought out to direct the next James Bond film "The World Is Not Enough." Having never directed a big Hollywood action film Apted decided to give it a whirl. What resulted was the most political Bond of all, as the plot revolved around cutting off world oil supplies and the terrorist nuking of Europe.

Two years ago, when HBO needed someone to direct their soon-to-be acclaimed series, "Rome," they turned to none other than Michael Apted to pilot the first three episodes. "Rome," for those who haven't seen it, is quite a brutal piece of political drama.

A look at Apted's career and it's obvious he sees what he's filming through an intensely focused political lens. The subject matter of the slave trade, in a way, while an immense crime against humanity, is indeed in a league that features the deaths of over 250,000 civilians in Iraq.

A few moments into the film as one see the debates in the British Parliament you are immediately startled by the fact that this is not about the slave trade alone but the trade in human lives being thrown overboard in Iraq as well.

In addition, by showing the political maneuvers of the supporters for the slave trade, we see how their parliamentary gamesmanship becomes the cinematic shorthand Mr. Apted employs to remind us of Western governments' misuse of their so-called representative democracy.

Through his own parliamentary chicanery, Wilberforce finally outsmarted his opposition when their guard was down. (He had brought the bill up for a vote every year since he wrote it in 1791.)

In July 1833, the Abolition of Slavery Bill was passed in the House of Commons at the third reading.

William Wilberforce died three days later.

{For the record, it should be noted that Wilberforce also founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - the Grandfather to PETA.}

The irony that "real" Christians and deeply religious folks were the heart and soul of the slave trade abolition movement is surely not lost on Mr. Apted. Today's so-called American Christian leaders, for the most part, support the war in Iraq, torture of detainees and a Crusade-like war on the Muslims.

Mr. Apted softly brings this home with images of church, song and prayer. Not to preach, but to show how "pure" the desire actually was on the part of the Abolition Movement and by stark contrast, just how jaded and greed-driven the pro slave traders remained decade after decade.

Apparently the time was never right for the end of the slave trade and anyone who suggested the British pull out of the slave trade was branded as a traitor to his country. Sound familiar?

That is why this film is relevant to us today.

That is why you are urged to see it.

In 1969, while the Vietnam War was raging full bore, folk singer Arlo Guthrie officially opened the 3 day Woodstock Music and Arts Festival with an anti-war song.

It was Amazing Grace.

(Joan Baez would later sing her rendition of it for the same goal.)

At its core, Amazing Grace is an anti-war movie and like many things the mainstream media has missed in recent years, they have missed the true message of this classically styled picture by a socially progressive veteran director.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)

That sav'd a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now I'm found,

Was blind, but now I see.

In Britain, March 25th 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the slave trade. The British government is using the film along with exhibitions and debates as teaching tools to educate their students about English complicity in the slave trade.

The film opens in England that day as well.

Maybe America can learn a thing or two from the single mom who raised us until we ran away during our rebellious teenage years.

Directed by Michael Apted

Written by Steven Knight

Starring Ioan Grufford, Romola Garai, Albert Finney, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon and Yousson N'Dour

Running Time: 120 minutes
Opened: Friday February 23rd

Can you help us out?

For 18 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.