In 2007, two movies about the hymn Amazing Grace came out – one directed by Michael Apted and starring Albert Finney, Ioan Gruffudd, and a very young Benedict Cumberbach, and the other written and directed by Nigerian filmmaker Jeta Amata. I’ve only seen the first one, which focuses on the story of William Wilberforce (played by Gruffudd), the chronically ill (and opiate addicted) member of Parliament who engineered the passage of an abolition law in England to put a stop to the slave trade. Benedict Cumberbach plays William Pitt (the younger), then the youngest Prime Minister in British history and a close friend and sometime ally to Wilberforce, but one who often has to play his hand close to his chest.
In one scene, Wilberforce shows some guests around a slave ship in London harbor to drive home the importance of the abolitionist cause. The very small size of the compartments for slaves is remarked upon – today we know that most of the slaves being transported were abducted as children and transported before the age of 15, which may partly explain the extraordinarily cramped size of the compartments. That’s not to say that the compartments would have been more comfortable for children. They would have been barely large enough to hold a small 10-year-old with no room to move, and the children would have been stewing in their own in urine, blood and faeces throughout the voyage.
Jeta Amata’s film focuses more on the story of the conversion John Newton, the writer of the hymn itself, who once practiced the slave trade, before going into the clergy for a living. It’s on my watch list. Wikipedia has a wonderful entry on John Newton’s life story – if you check it out, leave a donation today, if you can, because it’s Wikipedia’s 20th birthday!
This poem, based on the 41st Psalm, is in the voice of Ioan Gruffudd’s Wilberforce, begging his beloved wife to be his crutch in the final stretch of his long, physically and mentally exhausting crusade to stop the slave trade. Here, he questions Pitt’s friendship, but in the end, the two were reconciled. Wilberforce and Pitt are buried side by side at Westminster Abbey.
Happy is he who sees to the afflicted.
When all is lost, his conscience will keep him safe.
May charity guard him and make his heart strong.
May his happiness know no shame – sing it out!
Deliver him from his enemies’ designs.
And let his love sustain him, in acute pain.
My whole bed turned over in wretched illness.
I prayed for more than a reprieve – “grant me grace,
and heal my soul, though my life is an offense.”
My enemies derided me when I swooned:
“How soon will he die, with his cause forgotten?”
And when these colleagues came to visit my bed,
I sensed the lie in their quick condolences.
While with me, they observed my every motion,
and in a spirit of mischief, told out all.
One and all my foes made light of my chances,
foretelling my death as though it served their plans.
“Some tumor or disease is lodged in his gut.
Once he lies back, he will lose this fight for good.”
Even my closest confidant, whom I trust
above all others, who ate at my table,
chose just then to be devious with his plans.
And you, my sweetheart and my true companion,
grant me grace, prop me up to show them my face.
In this I must know you are equal in love
to the enemies who trumpet my collapse.
And I, in my ignorance, you preserved me
and helped me rise again to our common cause.