TBT: Amazing Grace (2006)

21

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.

2006 Amazing Grace

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.

2006 Amazing Grace

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

2006 Amazing Grace

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):

2006 Amazing Grace

Tousled hair, high collars – grrr!

Ooo in my imagination they’re flirting

2006 Amazing Grace

Taking on The System.

And Cumberbatch as William Pitt the Younger (prime minister and politician):

WHO KNEW CUMBERBATCH SUITED WIGS THIS WELL.

2006 Amazing Grace

I’m just checking out those side rolls!

2006 Amazing Grace

DAMN GURL.

2006 Amazing Grace

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:

2006 Amazing Grace

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).

Albert Finney, Amazing Grace (2006)

Albert Finney (Tom Jones, Murder on the Orient Express, Annie, Washington Square) as John Newton (Anglican cleric, slave ship captain who later became an abolitionist, and investor; he wrote the lyrics to the song “Amazing Grace”).

Ciaran Hinds, Amazing Grace (2006)

Ciarán Hinds (Persuasion, Ivanhoe, Jane Eyre, Oscar and Lucinda, Rome, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) as Banastre Tarleton (soldier and politician).

2006 Amazing Grace

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).

2006 Amazing Grace

Stephen Campbell Moore (Bright Young Things, He Knew He Was Right, Wallis & Edward, Titanic, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Downton Abbey) as James Stephen (lawyer and abolitionist).

2006 Amazing Grace

Bill Paterson (The Return of the Musketeers, Richard III, Wives and Daughters, Doctor Zhivago, Bright Young Things, Miss Potter, Little Dorrit, Outlander) as Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (advocate and politician).

2006 Amazing Grace

Richard Ridings (Erik the Viking, The History of Tom Jones, The Brothers Grimm, Oliver Twist, Jericho, Dickensian, Six Wives with Lucy Worsley) looking STRAIGHT OUTTA HOGARTH as the Speaker of the House.

2006 Amazing Grace

Rufus Sewell (Middlemarch, Cold Comfort Farm, Dangerous Beauty, A Knight’s Tale, The Last King, Tristan + Isolde, John Adams, The Pillars of the Earth, Victoria, The Pale Horse) looking shockingly homely (purposefully bad haircut) as Thomas Clarkson (abolitionist).

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:

2006 Amazing Grace

Pup sez “PUT ME DOWN POPS.”

2006 Amazing Grace

“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):

2006 Amazing Grace

This jacket. THIS HAT. This is seriously something I may need to make.

2006 Amazing Grace

Two different silk taffetas make up the jacket.

2006 Amazing Grace

The outer one has a subtle stripe.

2006 Amazing Grace

LOVE the collars in this era!

2006 Amazing Grace

That perfect ringlet on her bust!

Amazing Grace (2006)

Various layers of dark blue.

2006 Amazing Grace

I don’t love the farmgirl pigtails.

2006 Amazing Grace

But they’re right for the period, and Garai rocks the red hair.

2006 Amazing Grace

It’s another jacket and waistcoat ensemble.

2006 Amazing Grace
2006 Amazing Grace

Wedding ensemble, 1797.

2006 Amazing Grace

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.

2006 Amazing Grace

Garai (right) looking very late 1790s, while Le Touzel (left) looks more 1780s.

2006 Amazing Grace

Note the contrast.

2006 Amazing Grace

I think the chemise gown is made of silk organza.

2006 Amazing Grace

She’s got a HUGE sash (she’s bending over here).

2006 Amazing Grace

Jumping forward to 1806-ish and pregnant.

2006 Amazing Grace

1807 in a square “scholar”-type hat.

2006 Amazing Grace

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.

2006 Amazing Grace

Maybe she’s born with it…

2006 Amazing Grace

Maybe it’s Maybelline!

And Sylvestra Le Touzel (Mansfield Park, Vanity Fair, Northanger Abbey, Titanic, The Crown) as Marianne, the wife of Henry Thornton:

2006 Amazing Grace

1797ish, in a high-waisted gown.

2006 Amazing Grace

Same era; love the hat!

2006 Amazing Grace

And the collar.

2006 Amazing Grace
2006 Amazing Grace

Same era.

2006 Amazing Grace

I like how the dress crosses over at the front.

2006 Amazing Grace

Eating breakfast (hence the hair).

2006 Amazing Grace

Looking more 1780s at the 1797 wedding.

And a few extras:

2006 Amazing Grace

HAAAAAAAAAAAT.

2006 Amazing Grace

1780s.

Amazing Grace (2006)

That green velvet jacket (center) has also appeared in The Affair of the Necklace and Marie Antoinette.

2006 Amazing Grace

Extras at the wedding.

 

Have you seen Amazing Grace? What did you think?

21 Responses

  1. Damnitz

    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.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Absolutely, we can critique here what we’d like to see objectively, but filmmakers have to look at what will sell.

      Reply
  2. Natasha Rubin

    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?

    Reply
    • Nzie

      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.

      Reply
      • Natasha Rubin

        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.

        Reply
      • Kendra

        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!

        Reply
    • Kendra

      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!

      Reply
  3. Sam Marchiony

    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.

    Reply
  4. Roxana.

    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.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Absolutely. It’s more about representation — how many films are made about white reformers vs. BIPOC; how many stories tell multiple perspectives.

      Reply
  5. Nzie

    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.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      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.

      Reply
      • Nzie

        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.)

        Reply
  6. Miss M.

    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!

    Reply
  7. Susan Pola Staples

    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.

    Reply
    • Hooley

      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.

      Reply
  8. Lily Lotus Rose

    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!

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Kathleen Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.