Miles on Movies

Amazing Grace (2006)
Tout Va Bien (1972)

reviewed by R. Miles Mendenhall

Amazing Grace is the personal history of the English movement to abolish the Atlantic slave trade.

This biopic of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffud) will be fascinating to anyone who knows the history of British Imperialism in the late 1700’s up to the 1830’s. The political machinations required to pass a law that subverted English shipping and mercantile interests of the time is a study in what is politically possible vs. what is politically desirable. The American Revolutionary War, the start of the French Revolution and Age of the Napoleonic Wars are the background to “Wilber’s” noble and self-sacrificing struggle to end the shipment of African captives on British ships. The horrors of the trade are obliquely described.

One might quibble that the focus on Wilberforce denigrates the work of the many other dedicated abolitionists. And the final act was passed a month after Wilberforce’s death, unlike the feel good ending of this film. But it was Wilberforce’s dedication and leadership that kept the struggle alive even in the darkest days of repeated defeat in the parliamentary and public arenas. Many other historical details are elided to provide the film its narrative arc. All the same, some of the issues of the day are made clear and they echo to our day.

The friendship between Wilberforce and William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Tory Prime Minister of the era is ably portrayed. The idea that young idealistic privileged men can change history, sometimes for the better, is a good object lesson for any generation.

Some reviewers find the romance angle a distraction from the history, but the idea that a crusader can get a second wind from the support and love of a beautiful, intelligent admirer gives hope to a lonely bachelor activist like myself.

The story loses momentum and starts to drag about three-quarters of the way, but it quickly regains its drive when James Stephen (Stephen Campbell Moore), clerk to the parliamentary Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade returns from his fact-finding trip to the Indies with a new legal strategy to destroy the profits of the fine bourgeois slave traders.

The debate between Wilberforce the Liberal Reformer and a Radical Revolutionary, embodied in the character of the other leading anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), is a classic portrayal of the reform/evolution vs. revolution debate that is still at the heart of any movement for positive social change.

Michael Gambon is entertaining as always in the role of tricky, smooth and instrumental Lord Charles Fox. Youssou N’Dour, in his first film role, plays Olaudah Equiano an African ex-slave and abolitionist activist. Equiano was the author of the first published slave autobiography. For those of you not familiar with N’Dour’s music you’re missing one of the greatest artists in the world. The great Albert Finney emotes retired and anguished ex-slaver Captain John Newton who penned the hymn “Amazing Grace” to describe his epiphany in realizing the absolute injustice and horror of his life’s work. Finney’s two scenes are the best in the entire movie.

I grew sick of that song back in my late Jesus Freak high school days and especially afterwards. Those of us in the Redstone Arsenal Post Chapel Youth Choir had to sing it again and again. But its “back story”, which I already knew, is graphically reiterated in this film, and gives me new tolerance and appreciation for the hymn. Plus they end the film with The Balmoral Pipes and Irish Guards Pipe Band playing it. The pop hit version from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Pipes, Drums and Military Band that came out in the early seventies was always my favorite rendition.

“Amazing Grace” is well directed by veteran filmmaker Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Thunderheart, Class Action, Nell) and inspiringly written by Stephen Knight (Dirty Pretty Things). Terence Malick is one of the five producers. (He directed The New World, Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Badlands, and in my opinion, and the opinion of many others, is one of our greatest contemporary filmmakers.)

I found it curious that a story about the bloody and brutal sources of British wealth did not tell us the source of Wilberforce’s family fortune. For it was his newly ascendant middle class mercantile and manufacturing class power that made his role as a reformer and crusader for industrial, educational and public health reform possible. But this lacuna is a common one that we still deal with in the struggles for social and economic justice. But just in case you’re as interested as I am, the Wilberforce’s money was made by William’s grandfather in the Baltic trade via the Eastland/North Sea Company.

As I was cogitating about the film afterwards I thought of the contrast in the way in which the English/British resolved their involvement in slavery vs. us Americans. Granted most British slavery took place in their colonies, while U.S. slavery was integral to our economy. But parliamentary debate, legal and political maneuvering is a far different thing than the slaughter of our Civil War. Hmmm….

Tout Va Bien (Everything’s Fine)

Radical experimental filmmakers Jean Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin tried to make a post-May ’68 film about a factory takeover in 1972 and in doing so answer the question, “How should intellectuals serve the Revolution?” Steeped in radical debates about film, politics, culture and revolution, this artifact is more interesting as a contribution to those debates and that time of revolutionary struggle than it is as a movie.

I was made aware of the intellectual ferment taking place in the sixties at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris because of the Bertolucci’s film “The Dreamers”, and its background material, about the Paris ’68 uprisings. Steeped in early Post-Structuralist mature Situationist, Euro-Maoist ideas and political movement, Godard and Gorin used Brechtian revolutionary theater concepts to make this revolutionary film.

The stars, Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, are sidelined and teased in the service of the workers fight against degrading factory conditions and their Rabelaisian Carnivalesque takeover. What plays as a poorly acted, by the factory worker / extras, disjointed and frustrating anti-narrative, becomes fascinating if one knows the theoretical antimonies being tested. But ultimately that is both the film and the movement’s failure.

The factory takeovers were an example of a French social phenomenon I read about in college articulated by political science Professor William Schonfeld. The “Chahute”*, when an uprising occurs in school, or the workplace, or any public institution like the military or prison, and the norms are temporarily overturned in an orgy of rebellion, destruction and satirically expressed pent-up rage. This is a phenomenon that is rare today, partly because systems of social control are much more sophisticated in the ways they are internalized by all of us. And partly because social memory knows the futile history of such uprisings.

* The term that my fuzzy detail memory provided me was “Chute” (remembering facts such as names, dates, statistics has never been my strong suit) and I was pretty sure I was wrong. I emailed Professor Schonfeld for a reminder. An hour of googling him did not provide the answer. When he got back to me a day later it turns out I was close! But whatever the proper name, the concept was clear in my memory. (Remembering ideas, concepts, events, etc. is something I do easily.)

If the struggle for human liberation requires a complex understanding of the history of abstruse intellectual debates, what hope is there to inculcate the masses with a sophisticated enough sensibility to get them to make a nuanced effort to create a world made for their/our benefit? And anyone familiar with these debates knows there is a major flaw in my formulation of the question in the previous sentence. “Inculcate who? You petty-bourgeois intellectual wanker and canker sore on the ass of the working class!!!”

The accompanying film, “Letter to Jane” that analyzes a photograph of Fonda in North Vietnam the summer after “Tout Va Bien” wrapped, is an even more illustrative example of this theoretical lameness. In a voice-over critique of star status, American (U.S.) imperialism, the consumer/producer exploitative dynamic of advanced capitalism, etc. the tendentious, oblique, boring and snotty inquiry from a couple of over- educated,* pedantic French intellectuals, who also happened to make some of the most revolutionary experimental films of their time! I had to fast forward through much of the rhetoric, mostly because of its familiarity and their denatured Maoist oversimplifications of preceding, and much more interesting, discussions among the post-Dada Situationists.

* I actually don’t think there is such a thing as over-educated but there are people who appear, due to their inability to communicate clearly and their pedantic use of trendy theory styles and terms, to be over-educated. As a, now ex-friend, said once in the late seventies, the trouble with this stuff is that after studying it for a few years, there end up being only about twenty people in the world who you can really talk to, who understand what the issues are and what you’re really trying to say.

Jane Fonda wrote last year in her autobiography that she fled the French bohemian film artist scene of the early seventies because her husband Roger Vadim considered an open marriage with multiple sex-partners a part of being revolutionary. But could it also have been the overbearing, boring and convoluted rhetoric of the intellectual Left that drove her to seek real action in the American anti-war movement? Don’t know, I was in high school in Huntsville, AL. The joys and labyrinthine intricacies of meta-theory still awaited me in Southern California.

For anyone interested in the application of High Theory to the revolutionary intellectual struggles of the late sixties and early seventies, this Criterion Collection edition of “Tout Va Bien” (available on DVD via Netflix and other such distributors) is a great artifact worth investigating. I recommend seeing it in juxtaposition to “The Dreamers” and the great “For Jonah, Who Will Be Twenty-Five In The Year 2000“ (1976) which is a more accessible effort to express and address the post ’68 malaise in the Western World’s revolutionary (aging) youth movement. In their prime these people were some of the most idealistic, extreme and interesting Boomers, and their failed experiment in human liberation is worth study, both as inspiration and cautionary tale.

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