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Darn! I wanted to like it. I wanted to like it real bad.

Amazing Grace is the latest film by that title, and the first to treat the unutterably difficult, and in retrospect stunning, struggle in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s to put an end to the British slave trade. Caught in the blinding amnesia of modern life it is almost impossible for us to imagine what was taken as a matter of comfortable fact in the life of the British nation, and had been for at least one hundred years — and longer in Portugal and Spain.

So long as the Empire, and material wealth, grew few cared to ask how it happened. “Favored by God” was a popular belief of course. British ships carried cargo to the four corners of the earth. The merchant fleet was the greatest ever seen. Though the Colonies had recently been lost, Great Britain was still the greatest power on earth. Sugar had been flooding the nation for decades, replacing other sweeteners and providing the cheap energy source, in sugared tea and marmalade for noon-time bread (the first “fast food”,) for the growing industrial classes. Where it was coming from, or how, was of no more interest to most British than the source of bacon or roses is to modern Americans. We like ’em, we want ’em. We pay (too much!) for ’em. End of story.

In 1787 a band of 12, mostly Quakers, assembled in a print shop in George Yard in London to begin a quixotic campaign to convince millions of their fellow citizens, and the members of Parliament, that abominable cruelty was responsible for much of this wealth. It was being practiced in their names, on human beings like themselves. It was being done with neck-irons and branding, with flogging and mutilation. It was being done with enslavement and torture and death as its chief implements: death by drowning, death by impalement, death by starvation, death by dogs. If you don’t believe it, they said, look at this evidence. They set irons, and whips, testimony and drawings before disbelieving eyes and described it in exquisite detail. This, they said, is what we are doing, and this, they said, must stop. Regardless of the financial cost to you or to me or the Empire itself, it must stop. They carried their campaign to every ear and eye in Great Britain for 46 years, until the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833. This story is one of the great stories of human history and is scarcely mentioned in textbooks and hardly known except among handfuls of historians.

This is the story I wanted to see. How did this campaign unfold? What were it’s trials, its errrors, it setbacks and successes? I wanted to see Thomas Clarkson barely escape with his life on the docks of Liverpool as a group of slave ship officers tried to end it and his damnable success in attacking their livelihood. I wanted to see him riding the 35,000 miles on horseback going to meetings. I wanted to see James Stephen witnessing the trial in the Barabadoes that changed his life, and his colleague on board a slaver taking notes in Greek so as not to be spied upon and turning them over to the organizers. Oh, what a splendid movie might have been made!

It was not to be. Apparently Michael Apted, the director (also of Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas In the Mist, Incident at Oglala, as well as thrillers like Extreme Measures, and The World Is Not Enough (Bond)) was asked to do a film, not about the anti-slavery movement, but about William Wilberforce — and that is what we get. Clarkson, Stephen, John Newton, the repentant slave ship captain who wrote the song “Amazing Grace,” all appear but as peripheral lights to the candelabra of Wilberforce, his friendship with William Pitt, and the long and intricate Parliamentary battles they waged. We see Wilberforce’s loss of faith, his battles through illness, his falling in love and fatherhood, his regaining of strength and faith and the first two victories in the struggle — though we don’t see the final, great victory, the news of which he got on his deathbed. Curiously, we aren’t told the source of his own wealth or if it was threatened by his obsession, nor who is father is — the famous Bishop Wilberforce who battled Darwin’s heretical ideas from pulpit and pamphlet for decades.

As such a film — a period biography — it was good enough. The fine volunteers at rottentomatoes.com give it a 72% favorable. I would be one of those tempted to throw, not hold, my tomato though.

Some liked it well enough. Andrew Sarris is among them. He takes it, and reviews it, as a very well done bio-pic. Fair enough, and perhaps the way to enter people’s hearts. Heck, even the Socialists like it, so maybe I’m missing something. For an aging curmudgeon though, who has seen enough movies about splendid love-affairs in period costume, and stirring speeches to sitting nobles, to last him into a second lifetime, it was a disappointment.

Where is the film we need to see? The Battle of Algiers for the nonviolent? The raw, gripping black and white scenes of clandestine meetings, broadsides hastily posted, meetings fearfully attended in guttering candle light? Where are the close ups of eyes witnessing the dumping out of sacks the terrible instruments of confinement and torture? Where are the gasps as the schematic of a slave ship’s hold is displayed and viscerally understood? Where is the sense of a growing movement, of people refusing to buy sugar, of putting up with privation, with suffering the scorn of their neighbors? Where are those who stopped their work, risked their livelihoods, to join the movement, to gather the evidence, to provide the heaving social earth of a social movement from which the Parliamentary maneuvers came and upon which they depended?

That’s the movie we need. Meanwhile the present Amazing Grace is good enough to spend your time with. It’s long past time for William Wilberforce’s memory to be dusted off and held in the spotlight reserved for our heroes. Though after you see the movie, or in place of it, read deeply and hold dear Adam Hochschild’s marvelous Bury the Chains, the book that should be the source of the movie we all want to see.