Surely this traffic cannot be good, which spreads like a pestilence, and taints what it touches! which violates that first natural right of mankind, equality and independency, and gives one man a dominion over his fellows which God could never intend!
— Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African
In 1807, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act. It took another 31 years before slaves were “emancipated” throughout the British Empire (by then, of course, no longer including the American colonies) via 1833’s Slavery Abolition Act. The extra-Parliamentary campaign that drove the passages of these acts, the anti-slavery movement, was among the first and most successful examples of non-governmental pressures effecting actual, official, legal, and political change.
Amazing Grace tells the story of this success, focused through the efforts and ordeals of exceedingly earnest abolitionist William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd). An evangelical Christian who supported animal rights and argued against trade unions, Wilberforce was born to basic white male privilege as a merchant’s son. As the film begins, he has written A Practical View of the Prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, dismayed by the moral decline of his nation and seeing himself as better suited for religious proselytizing than politics. Already renowned at the time for his work within the abolitionist movement, he first appears in the film commanding a mud-covered knave from caning his horse.
As noted by his good friend and future prime minister William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), such gallant behavior is typical of Wilberforce, who can’t stop himself from defending the defenseless, even if it means stopping in the rain and putting off his own business. His primary character trait thus established in about two minutes, Wilberforce consistently appears a heroic figure, so consumed by his passions and righteousness that he is literally sickened when anti-slavery bills are blocked in Parliament. Still, he insists, when advised to rest himself, “Sleep is more exhausting than being awake,” as his dreams reveal to him “things I should have done but didn’t.”
Wilberforce’s opponents look to be pretty much willfully asleep, in moral and spiritual sense. Chief among them are Tory Lord Tarleton (Ciarán Hinds) and the Duke of Clarence (Toby Jones), the latter introduced as he instructs an underling to “Fetch my nigger,” that is, the property he means to lay down as ante in a card game. Wilberforce is horrified by the gesture, stomping from the table and inspiring Pitt to remark, “You act as if you’ve never seen slavery before.” Wilberforce glowers that it’s “like arsenic.” Pitt takes this as a cue: the two of them must be elected to Parliament where they “will change things.”
With that, Wilberforce marches back inside, where the Duke and crew are singing some anthem “like a chorus of bloody cats” and launches into a lovely rendition of “Amazing Grace,” incurring the wrathful evil eyes of the privileged set. It also sets in motion the movie’s thematic insistence on seeing — on making a deliberate choice to see that slavery, for instance, is a horrible moral blight, even if it’s off-screen in the colonies and not in London with our heroes.
This process of seeing takes several forms for the film. For one, Wilberforce is visited by a group of abolitionists who bring along an actual ex-slave, Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour), as well as props (implements of torture and restraint, brutal even when set down on tables). Properly moved to action, Wilberforce solicits the support of the much respected Whig Charles James Fox (Michael Gambon), who, with Pitt, supported the French Revolution. Once on board with the abolitionists, he proceeds to present legislation to the Parliament repeatedly, each time bringing more “evidence” to bear, as the lords and business-interested sorts argue that the profits of slavery are too dear to give up.
Providing even more visceral persuasion are Wilberforce’s visits with former slave transport captain John Newton (Albert Finney). Now literally blind, he wears burlap robes and scrubs church floors, punishing himself for the sins he committed on his ship (not only abuse and starvation, but also, even after the passage of the 1807 act, the trade continued: though captains were fined £100 for each slave found on board, that mostly meant that when their ships were stopped, they threw captives overboard). Hearing these horrors, Wilberforce entreats his reluctant friend to testify — as the Parliament won’t pass legislation if not confronted with “evidence,” testimony with names attached.
Wilberforce suffers on hearing such stories, repeatedly rendered as pale, quivering devastation. At home he tends to his rabbits and absorbs the smiling warmth of his wife, Barbara (Romola Garai), who bears children and insists that his work is brilliant and necessary and world-changing. As much as this grounded girl serves William’s connection to earth, offering him other ways to parse his spiritual calling, she can’t wholly save him from his own sincerity. “My illness and my crusade,” he observes at one point, were born around the same time.”
As the movie has it, the phenomena reinforce one another, each seeming a sign of the other. This is one way to reflect the effects of slavery on broader society, indicating that — even as Equiano only appears in the film for a few minutes, all told — it “taints what it touches.” The film suggests that seeing beyond literal sight is a means to good work, a mode of faith and spirituality to which politicians might aspire. Even so, the focus on Wilberforce’s ailing body seems a peculiar, not to say “amazing,” displacement of affliction.