Saturday, March 24, 2007
Amazing Grace opened in Canada this Friday to some surprisingly bad reviews. I suppose this should not surprise me. Maybe an important story will always appear dull if you judge it by the standards of the profitably trivial fare that washes over movie screens every day of the year. Perhaps you have to fly into a rage at the film industry, and stay away from the theaters for months at a time, as I have done, in order to appreciate a beautiful film such as Amazing Grace.
But Susan Walker, who reviewed the film for the Toronto Star, expressed an opinion that astonished me when she wrote that Wilberforce's life did not "merit a 111-minute theatrical feature." Excuse me? This man stood at the center of one of the most important movements of history. However you apportion the credit, the anti-slavery movement in Britain overturned a blot on civilization which had existed throughout all of recorded history. And the anti-slavery movement did it first. The title has a supremely appropriate allusion: by an Amazing Grace, we believe, we know, that we as a society, a people, even a species can free ourselves from the most deep-rooted of evils. Thanks to Wilberforce, thanks to Granville Sharpe, thanks to Olaudah Equiano, to the Religious Society of Friends, and to all the people great and small who stood up against it, slavery no longer enjoys legal sanction in our world.
That means more than some reviewers seem to think. Rick Groen, who reviewed the film for the Toronto Globe and Mail, wrote that it left him "emotionally untouched". I don't know what would touch him. This movie requires the audience to bring to it some imagination of their own, an appreciation of what words mean. It shows us the chains, shows us the hold of a slave ship, shows us the exact dimensions of a slave berth. If the abolition of that horror leaves you untouched, consider this: for those of us working to end other horrors which have persisted from the dawn of human history until the opening of the twenty-first century, the name Wilberforce means hope. Three hundred years ago, reactionaries could argue that human nature, in its essentials, would never change, that no reform could ever have a lasting effect. After William Wilberforce, that argument has lost much of its force. People tell us that we will never see a world without war, that humans carry conflict encoded in our genes. They said the same thing about slavery, too, until 1833. The great emancipation tells us that the worst of our history need not shape our destiny. And that does bring tears to my eyes, because it seems to me a truly, deeply, wonderfully amazing Grace.