Before and after such African-American directors as Spike Lee began to chronicle the black man's struggle against racism, directors found safer haven in the "Great White Father" character to tell their story. It always felt like a compromise; the story needed to be told, but it also needed to reach its audience, so it was always more convenient to tell a story through a white protagonist, whose own noble struggle could better relate to a predominantly white audience.
We saw Donald Woods more than Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, FBI agents more than Civil Rights activists in Mississippi Burning, the attorney Baldwin more than the slave in Amistad. Even such lauded fare as The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond pays closer attention to the white hero than the oppressed black. Constantly, the characters are wrestling with issues of conscience and compromise, fighting to figure out where and how (and how much) to fight.
Director Michael Apted's latest, Amazing Grace, wrestles more directly with such issues of conscience or compromise, and if the story feels almost too familiar, the subject matter nevertheless gets a fresh telling.
Consider, for example, that Apted is telling not of the abolition of the slave trade in America but in the British Empire. He tells the story through the perspective of William Wilberforce (Ioan Griffudd) and the young Parliament member's delicate alliance with his equally young friend, Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch).
With a plan predicated on recruitment and patience (and Pitt's barely winking support in the chambers), the pair hopes first to end the slave trade and later slavery period. Support comes in varying degrees from John Newton (Albert Finney), a repentant slave-ship captain who penned the popular hymn "Amazing Grace"; veteran Parliament member Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon); abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), a radical; Olaudah Equiano (Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour), a former slave who bought his freedom; and Wilberforce's future wife, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), whose passion to end slavery equals his.
In between such thrillers as The World Is Not Enough and Extreme Measures, Apted often has explored more humanist territory, including Nell, Incident at Oglala and Class Action as well as his "7 Up" documentary series most recently seen in 2006's 49 Up.
Here Apted tackles the British slave trade head-on, and the result is a reassuring effort filled with good intentions and that familiar nobility, but also with that slightly irritating lack of proportion. It's hard to blame Apted, for Wilberforce is a natural protagonist: a young lion whose first inner conflict was whether to follow his heart and become a man of the cloth or to endure the slings and arrows of politics for a cause that had little chance of succeeding. And Griffudd -- known better to American audiences for his Fantastic Four appearance -- is game for the task. Wilberforce's battles take their toll on his health over the years, so he doesn't just age; he also weakens, and Griffudd's physicality bears those scars well.
Historians have politely admonished Apted and screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) for cheating on the facts a little bit, fudging the time line of Newton's work and minimizing the efforts of Clarkson and Equiano.
But where Apted might falter in some areas, he excels in others, particularly in the way he breaks down the political maze that Wilberforce must navigate while tempering his own radicalism. His relationship with his friend, the prime minister, seems on a roller coaster ride throughout, and at various times we're not sure if Pitt is friend or foe. That's what is so frustrating about the art of political compromise, and Apted taps into it in earnest.
Finney and Gambon, both old pros, ease through the film effortlessly, and Sewell (always saddled with playing the heavy in America) is so unrecognizable as the offbeat but passionate Clarkson, it almost feels like Johnny Depp was chipping in for a moment.
It could be argued Apted has fallen in step with other directors compelled more by the noble white protagonists of history than the black, which is understandable. History is filled with white people taking huge risks in doing the right thing. I still can't help but wonder what movie could be made about an Olaudah Equiano and how he helped end the slave trade.
Regardless, Apted's passion for political intrigue and the care he shows for his characters -- however placed in the story -- helps Amazing Grace tell a story that offers Americans and British alike a helpful history lesson.
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