I once heard an African-American southern gospel singer – whose name I cannot recall – preface his rendition of a beloved hymn by pointing out that it can be played on just the black keys of a piano. He claimed this approximated the pentatonic scale indigenous to west Africa. Then, he went on to speculate that the captain of a slaver transporting slaves from west Africa to the Caribbean in the 18th century had first heard this melody as a lament sung by captured slaves on his ship. That John Newton adapted the lament for the hymn he wrote following his Christian conversion and abandonment of his former career to become a preacher and an opponent of the slave trade.

Although the melody to which we now sing Newton’s hymn probably wasn’t employed until the mid-19th century, “Amazing Grace” presides as the title of this biopic of William Wilberforce, the politician who led the 18th- and 19th-century campaign against slavery in the British Empire. Wilberforce’s campaign, and what it cost him and his fellow campaigners, forms the basis of the film.

Wilberforce is played by the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, who first came to prominence playing the title character in the recent production of the Hornblower series, beginning in the late 1990s. To North American audiences, he is known for Black Hawk Down (2001).  Gruffudd offers a winsome, engaging performance, but I couldn’t help thinking that his portrayal of the young Wilberforce bears a striking resemblance to his Horatio Hornblower. Does Gruffudd belong to the John Wayne school of acting, in that no matter what part he plays, he excels at playing himself?

More compelling is Albert Finney’s John Newton, tortured by his previous life as a slaver captain, and Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Charles Fox, MP, perhaps the greatest prime minister Britain never had. Gambon’s Fox is an amalgam of cynicism and self-interest overwhelmed by a principled opposition to slavery, of a warhorse who puts his wiliness in the service of Wilberforce’s campaign. Also notable are Benedict Cumberbatch’s William Pitt (Britain’s youngest ever prime minister), Youssou N’Dour’s Olaudah Equiano (an emancipated slave), Toby Jones’s Duke of Clarence (the future William IV) and Rufus Sewell’s Thomas Clarkson.

Michael Apted, the director of the film, and his editor, Rick Shane, opt for a series of flashbacks to tell the story of Wilberforce’s conversion and of the formation of the Clapham circle. Both are central to this recounting of the 20-year campaign against the slave trade. The flashback is a device used to engage an audience with the key theme of the movie at a compelling point in the narrative. But it is a bit confusing, following the flips back and forth, and does not add to the movie. How about simply telling a story from the beginning to its end?  Novel, but it might catch on.

I so want to single out Steven Knight for his screenplay. Knight clearly has an agenda, but his agenda doesn’t get in the way of the story. Conversely, the story does serve his agenda – describing a successful campaign to abolish the slave trade. Although the film’s epilogue offers a tip of the hat to the other part of Wilberforce’s agenda – “the reformation of manners (society)” – the story is the campaign against slavery. Here are the lessons I take from Knight’s telling that bear consideration by any would-be Wilberforces of the 21st century:

1. Changing public policy can be a long-term proposition. In the case of the slave trade, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson in 1787. Wilberforce first tabled a bill in the House of Commons for abolition of the slave trade in 1791, some 16 years before its passage. These 20 years entailed a well-organized issue campaign that included petitions, preaching in the churches, boycotts, new hymns (John Newton’s “Amazing Grace”), events to bring home the ugliness of the trade, lobbying members of Parliament and the government, the writing of pamphlets and books and-and-and;

2. It takes a team. Wilberforce wasn’t alone. He had the tacit support of prime minister William Pitt, first the undisclosed and later public support of the very prominent MP, Charles Fox, a number of significant financial supporters, Hannah Moore’s network of opinion leaders and elites, and preachers;

3. There will be setbacks. When the French Revolution got underway in 1789, the abolitionists were in danger of being accused of sedition against the Crown for their opposition to slavery. The campaign was not only stalled for a time, but saw some of its advances reversed;

4. Success requires being politically, procedurally and legally smarter than the opposition. What significantly reversed the setbacks from the French Revolution was the outlawing of slavers’ using the American flag as “a flag of convenience” as the French and British were at war. This move eliminated some 80 per cent of slave transport and trafficking before abolition of the trade in 1807; and

5. The impetus for the abolitionist movement was Christian faith, animated by the grace of salvation and prayer.
Near the end of the film, William Wilberforce visits his “old preacher,” John Newton, who is dictating a memoir of his participation in the slave trade to a recorder because he is blind. And Newton exclaims that line of his famous hymn is at last true of him: “Was blind, but now I see.”
Go see.

Amazing Grace opened in Canada and in the United Kingdom on March 23, 2007, two days before the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire.

Russ Kuykendall is Senior Researcher with the Work Research Foundation. This review originally appeared March 9 in Comment.