Amazing Grace (2006)





Director:     Michael Apted. 

Cast:     Ioan Gruffudd (William Wilberforce), Romola Garai (Barbara Spooner), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Pitt), Albert Finney (John Newton), Michael Gambon (Lord Charles Fox), Rufus Sewell (Thomas Clarkson), Youssou N'Dour (Olaudah Equiano), Ciarn Hinds (Lord Tarleton), Toby Jones (Duke of Clarence), Nicholas Farrell (Henry Thornton), Sylvestra Le Touzel (Marianne Thornton), Jeremy Swift (Richard the Butler), Stephen Campbell Moore (James Stephen), Bill Paterson (Lord Dundas), Nicholas Day (Sir William Dolben).

1807, William Wilberforce is the main force behind the passage of the bill eliminating the slave trade in the British Empire


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

By the 18th century, over 11 million African men, women and children had been taken from Africa to be used as slaves in the West Indies and the American colonies.  Great Britain's empire was built on the back of slaves.  The slave trade was considered as acceptable by all but a few.  Of these, even fewer were brave enough to speak against it. 

England 1797.  William Wilberforce is riding in a carriage when he has the driver stop so that he might stop two men from abusing their exhausted horse.  William visits with his cousin Henry and his wife Marianne.  Marianne tells her husband to tell William that he is killing himself with overwork. 

That night William has a nightmare of people laughing  and having a high old time in a theatre box and of him overturning the bottles of liquor.  Henry gives William some laudanum to help him sleep.  Perhaps he is haunted by the failure of his last attempt to pass the abolition of the slave trade bill in Parliament.  Marianne and Henry try to fix William up with the lovely Barbara Spooner.  But neither of the recipients of this attention will put up with this and walk out on the attempted fix.  They meet outside and exchange a few words with each other, but that is the end of it. Barbara tells William that she admires his efforts on the abolition bill. 

House of Commons, 15 years earlier.  William participates in a game of cards where betting is involved.  He is doing well while his main competition is running out of money.  With no money, the member of Parliament offers his black slave as part of his bet.  William is offended and leaves the table.  (William is friends with William Pitt and the two cooperate together on many issues.  Pitt tells him that he is planning to become prime minister and he wants William by his side.)  Later William sings "Amazing Grace" to his fellow members of Parliament.   

A former slave, Mr. Equiano, talks to crowds about the horrors of the slave trade.  William talks with a number of fellow anti-slave trade people.  They know he is torn between choosing the clergy and political activism.  They suggest that he can do both.   The odds are against success.  The slave trade has 300 members of Parliament in their pockets.  So it will be 1 against 300.  For moral support, William pays a visit to John Newton, a former slave trader who had transported some 20,000 slaves and the composer of the hymn "Amazing Grace".   Newton says he cannot be of much assistance since "I have blood on my hands."  William goes to Jamaica and sees up close and personal tragedies such as slaves being scalded to death by molten iron. 

Back to the present.  At a formal dinner William and Barbara are seated together.  This time they seem to be doing just fine with each other.  They speak of his society for the prevention of cruelty to animals and about the failure to pass the bill for the abolition of the slave trade.  Barbara wants to know more about Equiano.  He wrote a book about his experiences as a slave.  Equiano had given William a tour of one of the slave ships.  William sees the cramped and crowded conditions the slaves had to endure during the three weeks long journey.  He also spoke of the crew raping the women. 

William speaks out once again for the abolition of the slave trade.  There is a lot of grumbling about his bringing up the subject again.  He mentions that one of the obstacles he faces is the opposition of many members of Parliament who have vested interests in the slave trade.  A key objection to the bill is that if there are no slaves, there are no plantations and with no plantations there is no money with which to fill the coffers of the king.  William has only 16 members of Parliament on his side.  On the bright side, William Pitt is now the prime minister. 

William shows a number of Parliamentary members a slave ship and tells them how horrible it was.  The ship carried 600 slaves, of which only 200 survived the journey.  The audience especially objects to the smell of the ship, which William calls the smell of death. 

The political climate starts to grow more favorable for the abolitionists.  Equiano sold 50,000 copies of his book in two months.  The abolitionist cause grows stronger.  Now they have a year to gather information for the next assault on the slave trade.  William's critics start becoming nastier and they now often slander his name.  Barbara Spooner asks him one day how long has he been on laudanum.  He says he uses it to deal with the pain of his colitis. 

The abolitionists are able to unroll in Parliament a petition of some 390,000 names opposing the slave trade.  The conservative's key spokesman, Charles Fox, gets up and signs his name to the petition.  The proponents of the anti-slave trading bill applaud the man while those on the other side boo him.  Then Parliament is adjourned until the veracity of the names on the petition can be checked.  Tarleton and Coconut Clarence go to see the Home Secretary, Lord Dundas, to get support to oppose the bill.  William and his crew had labeled Dundas a probable supporter of the bill.  Charles Fox tells them to be wary of Dundas.  The man controls the Scottish vote of some 34 members of Parliament.  The talks is that Lord Tarleton is going to use slave trade money to reward those who will speak out against abolition.  William Pitt speaks with Lord Dundas and tells him his recent political moves are threatening their friendship.  Dundas does not seem phased by the threat. 

Pitt speaks to William.   There have been five attempts to pass the abolition bill.  Pitt says that the French Republic will declare war with Great Britain within a year.  He says in the case of war William will have the wrong friends: Clarkson, Equiano and even Thomas Jefferson.  Pitt adds that when war comes, what is called opposition will soon be called sedition. 

A clergyman speaks out against the slave trade and many of his parish leave the church service.  During the war there is not much sympathy for the abolition bill.  William starts losing some of his key supporters.  Equiano dies in his bed, Clarkson is out of it and Fox is just watching and waiting.  The hope is that when the people stop being afraid, their compassion will come back.  

William and Barbara marry.  At the service Barbara has everyone sing "Amazing Grace".  William and Barbara move to the neighborhood of Chapham to be near their friends Marianne and Henry. 

William tells Prime Minister Pitt that he is going to try again to get the abolition bill passed.  John Newton speaks out against the torturing of slaves common in the slave trading business.  William speaks with Newton who is still wracked with guilt:  "We were apes.  They were human."  He also speaks of his 20,000 ghosts that haunt him.  William goes to tells Clarkson that he must return to London for the next fight.  James Stephen arrives from the Indies.  He talks about how many Africans are charged with crimes they did not commit and then are burned for it.  He adds:  "This time gentlemen, we cannot fail them."  He has a new novel idea to get the bill passed.  It involves nosus decipio, meaning "we cheat".  They are going to pull a fast one on the opposition. 

Most of the slave trading ships fly under the flag of neutral countries, especially under the American flag.  If the use of the neutral flags could be banned, without the protection of the American flag, 80 percent of the British slave trade would be almost finished overnight.  The abolitionists are going to hide the bill by disguising it.  The hope is that half the slavers will be bankrupt within two years.  Then they can pick off the slave trader's M.P.s one by one. They are going to disguise the bill as an anti-French bill which just also happens to be an anti-slavery bill.  The slavers must never find out that it is the abolitionists who are behind the bill.  This way the bill might just sail through Parliament. 

Few members of Parliament are in attendance when the bill is discussed.  But one day Tarleton notices that the abolitionist Clarkson is in the audience.  He starts getting suspicious.  He doesn't know what the abolitionists are up to, but he senses that something is wrong.  But it is already too late for him to get an adjournment.  So Tarleton runs out of the chamber and starts calling his people together for a meeting.  Imagine his shock, when Charles Fox tells him that most of  his supporters are at the races, compliments of free tickets from William Wilberforce.  At home William has a bad attack of colitis.  Barbara offers him laudanum but he tells her that he wants to kick his addiction. 

Two years later.  Barbara and William have a young boy that is not yet two years old.  And Barbara is pregnant again.  William goes to visit a very ill William Pitt.  Pitt tells William that Lord Granvile will be the next prime minister and Fox will be secretary.  Furthermore, the crown will remain neutral on the abolition bill.  Pitt remarks to William:  "Next time you'll be pushing on an open door." 

Clarkson is at Equiano's grave drinking to the coming victory of their bill. He says:  "Wish you were here to see this."  The atmosphere is now of "just one more push, one more".  In Parliament the vote is taken.  The Home and Foreign Slave Trade Act is passed.  There were 16 nos and 283 yeses.  The supporters are absolutely ecstatic.  Charles Fox speaks highly of the contribution of William Wilberforce to the passage of the bill.  There is a big applause for William. 

William Wilberforce kept working on many different reforms.  He died in 1833.  He is buried in Westminster Abbey next to his friend William Pitt. 


Good movie.  At times it was hard slogging through all the infighting between the opponents and proponents of the bill for the abolishment of the slave trade.  But it gets better at the end when the proponents use a kind of trick to get the bill passed.  There was a lot of focus on various anti-slavery speeches and some may get tired of this.  The movie is nearly two hours long and that's a lot of time for speeches.  There were a lot of well-known actors in the movie including Albert Finney and Michael Gambon. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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