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Amazing Grace
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Memoirs of a Geisha
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Motorcycle Diaries
National Treasure
The New World
Oliver Twist
Passion of the Christ
Pride and Prejudice
Pirates of the Caribbean 2
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Walk the Line
We are Marshall
World Trade Center


Amazing Grace: How Sweet the Story

The enslavement of African-Americans left an ugly stain on American history. But the sin wasn't ours alone. For centuries, plantations throughout the Caribbean and South America worked slaves to death, and European nations got rich by supplying them with new ones. Great Britain, in particular, made huge profits from the slave trade. In the 18th century, the British led the world in the traffic of African slaves.

But they also led the struggle to abolish it. The new film 'Amazing Grace' brings to stirring life the story of William Wilberforce, who helped wage a decades-long campaign in Parliament to end the British slave trade. By turns poignant, funny, and inspiring, the film takes what could have been a preachy biopic and turns it into a song. Here's a guide to some of the history referenced in a story that's unfamiliar to American audiences.

Q. Was Wilberforce as heroic as portrayed by the film?
A. Some historians have criticized the film for giving Wilberforce too much of the credit for ending the slave trade. Adam Hochschild, author of Bury the Chains, a history of British abolition, points out that many other activists pushed the issue, helping to create a massive popular movement against slavery in late 18th century Britain. And slaves themselves deserve some credit. By revolting on British plantations in Jamaica and Barbados, they forced the British public to confront the brutality of slavery and the slave trade.

Yet, the film does show many other activists, especially Olaudah Equiano the former slave who wrote of his experiences in a searing autobiography, and promoted it and the abolition cause all over England.

And critics to the contrary, Wilberforce was crucial to the movement, and it makes sense that 'Amazing Grace' keeps the focus on him. His political stature and rousing eloquence made him the public face for abolition, and an inspiration for people around the world, even long after his death. Ohio's Wilberforce University, the first college owned and operated by African-Africans, was named in his honor in the 1850s, twenty years after he died.

Q. A key plot point in the film involves Wilberforce being torn between the ministry and politics. Is that true?
A. It is. Wilberforce had been elected to Parliament at the tender age of twenty-one. Celebrated for his brilliance, wit, and charm, Wilberforce seemed on the political fast track, alongside his best friend William Pitt, who at twenty-four would become Britain's youngest ever Prime Minister.

But then Wilberforce experienced a profound religious conversion, turning from an apathetic Anglican into a fiery Methodist. He agonized over whether he should quit Parliament and enter the ministry. He sought advice, as the film shows, from John Newton, the former slave trader turned preacher, and best known as the author of the hymn, 'Amazing Grace.' It was Newton who famously urged Wilberforce to stay in politics and "serve God where he was."

Q. Speaking of Newton, the film shows him as a passionate abolitionist, yet some critics say he only half-heartedly condemned slavery. Where's the truth?
A. Some historians criticize Newton because he didn't condemn the slave trade until years after his conversion. But when he converted in the 1750s, slavery was widely accepted by whites as part of the natural order, and Newton, like many others of his era, only gradually learned to see it differently. By the 1780s, Newton had expressed his bitter regret and repentance for his role in the slave trade. He worked with Wilberforce and other abolitionists, publishing a tract describing the brutality practiced on slave ships, and testifying before Parliament on the issue.

Q. The film shows Wilberforce as perpetually sick. What did the poor guy have?
A. It was probably ulcerative colitis, which basically means inflammation and sores in the intestines. Wilberforce suffered from it all his adult life, and it almost killed him on a few occasions. The constant sickness added to his marked frailty. The actual Wilberforce, unlike the tall and dashing Ioan Gruffudd who plays him, was a wee, frail little man, who in the throes of his illness was said to weigh less than eighty pounds.

Q. Did he take laudanum?
A. He did, but he wasn't alone. 19th century doctors in both England and the U.S. freely prescribed laudanum (a liquid form of opium) to alleviate pain. Its use was so widespread that even medicine for infants was laced with the stuff.

In the film, Wilberforce heroically quits the drug before his first child was born. But the filmmakers fudged that point, because he continued taking it all his life to combat the constant pain of his illness. Unlike most people who took it regularly, though, Wilberforce apparently resisted the temptation to keep increasing the dosage.

Q. The villain here is Lord Tarleton, the member of Parliament who blocks Wilberforce's every political move. Was he an actual person?
A. He was. Banastre Tarleton was the most vocal pro-slavery man in Parliament, arguing that without slavery the British economy (and its empire) would collapse. The owner of a West Indies sugar plantation, Tarleton was a British war hero, having fought against the Americans in the Revolutionary War. "Bloody Tarleton," the Americans called him, and interestingly, the evil "Colonel Tavington" in Mel Gibson's 2000 film, The Patriot is based on Banastre Tarleton. But though "Tavington" ends up skewered on an American flag at the close of that film, the real Tarleton lived to bedevil William Wilberforce in Parliament for years.

Q.What's a good source for more information on Wilberforce?
A. Try Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated column on historical films.
Joliet Herald News, 2/25/07

Ioan Gruffudd is wonderful as Wilberforce.

John Newton (Albert Finney) and William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd)

Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour)


© 2004 History in the Movies