Amazing Grace

| February 28, 2008
Amazing Grace
  • Amazing Grace

DVD, directed by Michael Apted.

20th Century Fox.

Perhaps the most pernicious doctrine of colonialism is the idea that enslavement is in the desire of the oppressed, and that the overthrow of slavery came from the gracious realizations of those in power. Articulated in the toxic notion of the "white man's burden," as phrased by Rudyard Kipling, the explanation that placed more than 80 percent of the globe's population under the boot of the privileged minority, is alive and well in the film Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace is a movie that chronicles the commitment of Member of Parliament William Wilberforce to persuade the British government that it should make the slave trade illegal. While it certainly portrays an important time in history, there's a problem: The movie's subtle and effective retelling of the story of slavery virtually leaves out Africans.

The film spends a lot of time describing the documentation of the terrors of slavery, putting forward the idea that the struggle against slavery was a battle of public opinion, that testimony from slaves was necessary to convince people that the slave trade was evil. But in the film, almost every articulation of the horrific slave trade is retold by a wealthy British citizen intent on persuading an audience of his peers.

Like Amistad, Amazing Grace includes images and even representations of Africans, but the arguments to the film audience are mostly made by privileged advocates. Former slave Olaudah Equiano, played by Youssou N'Dour, is the only exception in Amazing Grace; he gets some time on the screen, a chance to show the East India Company brand on his chest and to rattle some chains, but it's all in order to prove to Wilberforce that slaves need an advocate of his caliber. This is the refined version of colonialism: that the former slaves, unable to free themselves, need a white savior for emancipation.

The suffering of anonymous Africans is described in heartfelt speeches, but African characters are given no depth and no chance to speak for themselves. The most villainous British characters get screen time to explore their redemption, most notably, the brutal slave ship captain John Newton, who in his own words is guilty: responsible for the slavery and murder of 20,000 Africans. Newton becomes a beaming bystander, crying in the wings, as generous English leaders decide to outlaw the slave trade inspired by his testimony and by his authorship of the redemption song "Amazing Grace."

Effective in drawing out emotions in the viewer, Amazing Grace may ultimately do more harm than good. The DVD release comes complete with features aimed at teachers: educational clips and exercises to be used in classrooms, presumably during the month of February, which the establishment has deemed Black History Month. Let us hope that the film is used only as an artifact to talk about how colonial discourse has evolved and maintained a system of white supremacy rather than as a self-congratulatory retelling of history that obliterates the very real struggle against slavery.

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