When I got up on March 25, I was pretty sure I would go and see “Amazing Grace,” a British film about the parliamentary struggle to ban the transatlantic slave trade. That struggle was victorious on March 25, 1807, and one doesn’t get to celebrate a 200th anniversary every day.
I knew I might not catch the first feature or even the second, because we had our North Texas Communist club meeting. If there’s anything I like more than good movies, it’s club meetings.
I could tell that some of the comrades were going through those hard kinds of personal times when work and worries tend to pull us back from the important struggles. I could see that old siren call working its way. It says, “Why fight so hard? Why not just relax into an intellectual and spiritual life that wouldn’t be so perilous with disappointments?” I knew that some of my comrades were feeling that, because I was, too.
The club meeting was a good one. We all left reassured in what we were doing and in each other, and I headed for the movies.
The first thing I noticed was the advanced age of the audience. Hardly anybody in the auditorium was under 60. Manes of silver hair challenged the theater’s darkness. One older gentleman stumbled all the way to the top of the stairs, then turned and fumbled, then tumbled, into the top seat. No night vision left.
Older people know when the good movies are on. They know when they have seen one, too. Many of us remained in our seats and watched the credits through bleary teary eyes.
Two hundred years ago, the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. It was a gigantic, historic victory, but it didn’t come easily. The devoted abolitionists and their parliamentary point man, William Wilberforce, lived through years of personal disappointments and frustrations.
Wilberforce was a highly spiritual man who was devoted to his childhood minister. The minister, played by the great Albert Finney, was the renowned songwriter John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” and lived his latter years trying to atone for his youth as a captain of slave ships.
Except for the two scenes in which Finney had lines, the movie was not immediately exciting. But it focused on what Wilberforce must have been feeling 200 years ago as he fought to end the slave trade. People betrayed him. People tricked him. People called him names and made up stories about him. People told him he was a fool and that he would never make a difference.
The movie made his desperate feelings clear and real. He listened many times, 200 years ago, to the old siren call: “Why fight so hard? Why not just relax into an intellectual and spiritual life that wouldn’t be so perilous with disappointments?”
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Directed by Michael Apted
Roadside Attractions, 2007