Amazing Grace (2006) is a hard film to review. On the one hand, its story of William Wilberforce, the politician who led the British campaign to end the slave trade in parliament, is important and fascinating. Ioan Gruffudd is hot hot hot, and Benedict Cumberbatch rocks a wig like nobody’s business. And Jenny Beavan‘s costume designs are spot on for the 1780s, 1790s, and 1800s depicted on screen (and gorgeous to boot). But do (did) we need another conventional heroic biopic about a white savior? No, we really don’t.
White people talking to other white people. What’s the racial equivalent of the Bechdel test?
One of the biggest problems is that a minor character in the film is Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 1797), a man from modern-day Nigeria who was enslaved, purchased his freedom, and became a major leader in the British abolitionist movement, including writing his autobiography. His life is so fascinating, and the kind of story that hardly ever (if ever) gets told. Instead, beyond Equiano, the only glimpse of slavery that we actually see on screen is a brief shot in Wilberforce’s laudanum dream and a scene where Equiano shows Wilberforce around a docked, empty slave ship. Of course, the abolitionist movement was made up of an interracial, international network, and without the dedication of many across the color line, it would likely never have been successful. But according to this movie, slavery is hard on white people and that’s just shockingly obtuse.
Youssou N’Dour as Olaudah Equiano.
The real Equiano: Olaudah Equiano (‘Gustavus Vassa’) by Daniel Orme, published by Olaudah Equiano (‘Gustavus Vassa’), after W. Denton, 1789, National Portrait Gallery
IMO the filmmakers were inspired by this painting, previously thought to depict Equiano (now thought to be abolitionist/writer/composer Ignatius Sancho), for the film character’s look | Portrait of an African by Allan Ramsay, 1757-60, Royal Albert Memorial Museum
Imagine if this film had depicted Equiano’s life.
Now that we’ve discussed the most important thing, let’s appreciate the beauty of Gruffudd as Wilberforce (British politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist):
Tousled hair, high collars – grrr!
Ooo in my imagination they’re flirting
Taking on The System.
And Cumberbatch as William Pitt the Younger (prime minister and politician):
WHO KNEW CUMBERBATCH SUITED WIGS THIS WELL.
I’m just checking out those side rolls!
Okay he’s still cute without the wig. Harumph.
Let’s discuss how the film is a who’s who of British actors; you will indeed spend the film wondering “Where do I know that person from?” so let me help you out:
Nicholas Farrell (Mansfield Park, The Jewel in the Crown, Hamlet, Charlotte Gray, Persuasion, Casualty 1909, Grace of Monaco, Finding Altamira) as Henry Thornton (economist, banker, philanthropist, and parliamentarian).
Michael Gambon (The Wings of the Dove, Plunkett & Macleane, Sleepy Hollow, Wives and Daughters, Gosford Park, Cranford, Brideshead Revisited, Emma, The King’s Speech, Victoria & Abdul, Little Women) as Charles James Fox (statesman).
Georgie Glen (Mrs. Brown, Berkeley Square, Shakespeare in Love, Wives and Daughters, Daniel Deronda, Rome, Easy Virtue, Desperate Romantics, Hysteria, Les Misérables, The Crown, Call the Midwife) as Hannah More (religious writer and philanthropist).
Toby Jones (Ever After, Aristocrats, Finding Neverland, Elizabeth I, A Harlot’s Progress, Titanic, Tale of Tales, The Witness for the Prosecution) as William, Duke of Clarence (politician, later Lord High Admiral, later King William IV).
Let us appreciate that Wilberforce was apparently an animal lover/supporter of animal rights, so there are a number of puppers in this film as well as a HARE:
Pup sez “PUT ME DOWN POPS.”
“PLEASE DON’T EAT ME.”
And finally, let’s look at the wardrobes of the two leading female characters, dressed perfectly in the transitional fashions of the 1790s and 1800s.
First, we have Romola Garai as Barbara Spooner Wilberforce (1777-1847):
This jacket. THIS HAT. This is seriously something I may need to make.
Two different silk taffetas make up the jacket.
The outer one has a subtle stripe.
LOVE the collars in this era!
That perfect ringlet on her bust!
Various layers of dark blue.
I don’t love the farmgirl pigtails.
But they’re right for the period, and Garai rocks the red hair.
It’s another jacket and waistcoat ensemble.
Wedding ensemble, 1797.
It’s a beautiful chemise gown and bonnet, but Garai is so much more simply dressed than any of the attendees. I’m not sure if she’s meant to be fashion forward, or if they just didn’t have the budget to update the extras’ wardrobes.
Garai (right) looking very late 1790s, while Le Touzel (left) looks more 1780s.
Note the contrast.
I think the chemise gown is made of silk organza.
She’s got a HUGE sash (she’s bending over here).
Jumping forward to 1806-ish and pregnant.
1807 in a square “scholar”-type hat.
The main problem I have with Garai’s look is her makeup, which, while natural colors, looks put on with a trowel. I feel like I’m generally immune to modern leading lady makeup, so the fact that this jumped out at me both times I’ve watched this is saying something.
Maybe she’s born with it…
Maybe it’s Maybelline!
And Sylvestra Le Touzel (Mansfield Park, Vanity Fair, Northanger Abbey, Titanic, The Crown) as Marianne, the wife of Henry Thornton:
1797ish, in a high-waisted gown.
Same era; love the hat!
And the collar.
I like how the dress crosses over at the front.
Eating breakfast (hence the hair).
Looking more 1780s at the 1797 wedding.
And a few extras:
That green velvet jacket (center) has also appeared in The Affair of the Necklace and Marie Antoinette.
Extras at the wedding.
Have you seen Amazing Grace? What did you think?
I didn’t like the mix of different events of Wilberforce’s life although I see the reason for that. But I loved the casting with many great actors. The difference in age and character of Wilberforce and his wife was very nice. I remember that the film was not really successfull on the market and therefore I would suppose that it would have made no difference if they would make a movie about Ignatius Sancho or even German or French people of colour (general Dumas for example and his very exciting and somehow tragic life). Gruffud very much is looking like Wilberforce and you could feel that he was inspired by the great ideas of the historical persons and that’s more then we have in many bio pics.
I think that we should like the film in the way it was supporting us in remembering the importance of Wilberforce and his comrades.
Besides: I very much like it, that you mentioned the servants. Servants are too often neglected.
Absolutely, we can critique here what we’d like to see objectively, but filmmakers have to look at what will sell.
I think the question we have to ask is, how do you write a biopic about someone like Wilberforce and not make it seem white savior-y? Because I don’t think the answer is that we just shouldn’t and should just make a biopic about a Black historical figure instead. We absolutely need more of those, but William Wilberforce is a significant historical figure in his own right and I think telling his story is valid as well.
So I think it has to come down to how it’s written. Maybe giving Equiano a larger role, and including more Black characters with more focus on their perspective, would have been a start?
I would also add that some of the issue with white savior things is that they dominate the space–some are inherently objectionable, to be sure, but if we had a more diverse range of films on the topic featuring a variety of protagonists, that balances it out, too.
That isn’t to say Equiano’s role couldn’t be expanded either. But when I recall the movie most of the abolitionist Clapham group weren’t developed that much–Equiano perhaps got more than most. I think it reflects the challenge of having a focused biopic trying to show a decades-long battle and exactly why Equiano deserves his own feature (as do undoubtedly many other forgotten Black heroes of abolitionism), where his story could be fully told/developed.
I completely agree with everything you said! I think if there were more movies made about the many historical figures of color who are often neglected, that would do a lot to right the balance on its own.
Agreed — Hannah More is basically there to say “we want you to champion abolition in parliament” and then “I hope you won’t mind if we’re noisy neighbors,” which, what a wasted opportunity!
That’s exactly what I would do. The reality is abolition would never have happened if white people hadn’t championed it; it’s just disappointing to not see more films about BIPOC perspectives. I’d have loved to see an intertwined story about Wilberforce and Equiano; or, just a separate film about one or more POC abolitionists. It’s about ratios!
Absolutely agree! Well said.
The racial version of the Bechdel Test is typically called the DuVernay Test, for Ava DuVernay, but there are also variants created by Nikesh Shukla and Clarkisha Kent.
Shukla criteria: Do two ethnic minorities talk to each other for more than five minutes about something other than race?
DuVernay criteria (created by Nadia Latif and Leila Latif) : Are there two named characters of color? Do they have dialogue? Are they not romantically involved with one another? Do they have any dialogue that isn’t comforting or supporting a white character? Is one of them definitely not a magical negro?
Kent criteria: an 8 point system that discusses a femme of color’s narrative arc, stereotyping, agency, and how they interact with other characters of various gender and racial identities. There’s a whole pdf about the Kent Test on the website Equality for Her.
While I have no problem with black abolitionists, slaves and former slaves getting cinematic attention we can’t ignore the existence of white abolitionists or the fact that the movement would have gone nowhere without the support of white men in the power structure. Such was history.
Absolutely. It’s more about representation — how many films are made about white reformers vs. BIPOC; how many stories tell multiple perspectives.
I’d count this film among my favorites, and the great costumes are a definite bonus.
I think it tried to cover so much of Wilburforce’s life (and the broad strokes of British abolitionism more generally) that very few characters besides him got much backstory or solo air time, including the abolitionists who brought the cause to his attention. Equiano and Clarkson got more than the others I think. It would be good to get Equiano’s whole story–we have his words about it, and they were tremendously important.
Agreed — if they’d tried to cover less time, they’d have had more room to develop other characters. On the other hand, showing just how long and disheartening the fight for abolition was is important — you wouldn’t want to make it seem like a couple speeches got made and then poof! It’s a definite quandry.
Absolutely–and it is one of the few dramas that I think does capture the length and breadth of that battle. Plus it had some very interesting things–I mean, I remember learning about Brits stopping American ships (the injustice! hence war!), but nothing about the abolitionist influence or intent there.
I’d say this is an argument for the focused shorter series, but I don’t know if I can see it working well in that format either, to be honest–I like tight storytelling and hitting the right balance when you’re trying to fill 8 or 12 hours, let’s say, can be tough. (I also don’t trust most of the “prestige series” networks to do anywhere near as thoughtful a job as I felt these filmmakers did, even with some issues.)
I agree with Natasha that Wilberforce was deserving of a biopic, and I also hope we get one on Equiano someday!
Mostly commenting to say that “STRAIGHT OUTTA HOGARTH” makes me super happy and I want to be able to say it about more films/tv shows/friends’ sewing!
Ha! I’ve just added it as a tag; I’ll go add it to Barry Lyndon as well!
I loved the movie. Yes a film about the abolition movement should have contained more POC abolitionists, but Wilberforce was such a leading light in the movement and an evangelical Christian, I can understand the concentration on him. We also have to remember that the white Patriarchy controlled the government. There were only property owners and wealthy merchant oligarchs in Parliament. No women and no POC. You had to convince them that owning a person IS wrong. I feel the film was successful in showing that. What I want is a miniseries on the subject with a diverse cast.
Yes, a mini-series. I am reminded of productions about the battle for women’s right to vote in Britain. While “Shoulder to Shoulder” (and why can’t I find it for streaming?), focused excessively on the Pankhursts (well, the series was done in the 1970’s), I still found it superior to the recent film “Suffragette,” which tried to be more inclusive with class, but shortchanged everyone. Some subjects need a mini-series to show the complexity of history.
I agree with much of what everyone else said–Ioan Gruffudd and Benedict Cumberbatch looked gorgeous; practically everyone else in the cast is awesome in this film and a myriad other projects as well; Rufus Sewell’s hotness was way toned down; and people of color were practically non-existent. It was well done for it was, the demerits are for what it was not. I think the people involved had the best intentions and came up with the best white savior movie they could.
And Nicholas Farrell – the first “where have I seen him/her before” person – starred in the EXCELLENT and criminally-underseen movie “A Midwinter’s Tale.” It’s not a FrockFlick and thus had no reason to be mentioned above. Even so, it’s one of my all-time favorite films and I always recommend when I have the opportunity! I think the British title was “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It’s one of Kenneth Branagh’s lessor-known works. I think any and/or all theater people will love it!
I saw it when it first came out, and posted a review, here.
“… when it comes out on DVD, it will make an excellent drinking game. Every time you see a British actor you recognize from Masterpiece Theater, knock back a shot for every presentation he or she was in. I guarantee everyone at the party will be paralytic by the end of the first half-hour, forty-five minutes max.”