Amazing Grace

Samuel Goldwyn


New Yorker

Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of theMovie Business

By David Mamet (Pantheon)

The first amazement about Amazing Grace is that it exists. Set inthe England of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,it tells the story of the now-celebrated William Wilberforce, whobecame a member of Parliament in 1784, when he was twenty-four;underwent a sort of spiritual enlightenment the following year; andin 1789 began a campaign for the abolition of slavery. Slavelabor,

particularly on the Caribbean sugar plantations, was a hugecommercial asset for Britain, and it wasn't until 1807, afterintense campaigning, that Wilberforce helped to bring about thepassage of the act abolishing the slave trade. (The completeabolition of slavery in the British Empire did not come until1833.)

Quite obviously this story is a burden for film-makers. An accountof devotion to a social cause, with all the jogs and jags that itpredictably would encounter among the plump and satisfied--we canalmost hear the debates in advance, the arguments for the financialnecessity of slavery, for the fact that the end of the system wouldgive profit advantages to countries that still used slaves, and thearguments about the insolence of criticizing a practice ofantiquity. To all these risks of familiar material that lie aheadmust be added the sanctified smell of a do-gooder. What an uphillstruggle to transform all this possibly didactic material into anengaging film.

All the more credit to the writer Steven Knight, the directorMichael Apted, the sterling cast, and everyone else prominentlyconcerned in the gratifying result. Throughout this two-hour film,we are aware of that uphill struggle, yet all along it we quietlycongratulate them on the way they are making the grade.

The crux of course is Knight's screenplay, which itself is somethingof a struggle. The dialogue is bright, historically styled yetlithe; the characterizations are graphic even with minor people.But Knight, and perhaps Apted, felt that some juggling of time wasneeded in order to avoid a plodding linear recital. So the picturebegins in 1797, with Wilberforce well launched in his beliefs, thenflashes back fifteen years to plant some beginnings, then returnsto 1797--what is then called "The Present Time." Wilberforce'sromance, marriage, and friendships also figure, then and "now." Andthere are further time-jumps that just skirt a touch of jumble.

Yet through these troubles Apted leads his actors so surely that thetime leaps almost become part of the characters' (not the actors')lives. Even better, Apted--best-known here for the series ofdocumentaries that began with Seven Up!, but who has also rangedthrough, among others, a James Bond film, Coal Miner's Daughter(about Loretta Lynn), and Gorillas in the Mist--handles this periodmaterial with no hint of acquired knowledgeability: he just seemsat home.

His actors share his ease. Ioan Gruffudd, who makes his firstappearance here in a major film role, gives Wilberforce a fittinglymodest importance. Gruffudd is not a whirlwind personality, but heis an actor who can seize the dramatic verity of every moment. Heand all of the cast bring what is almost British stock-in-tradewith period pictures, as if they had just been waiting to displaytheir command of historical style.

Two actors need special bows. Michael Gambon plays a Gambonian lord,a man who uses the decorum and dress of his time almost but notquite to excess. He can make his ultimate support of Wilberforceseem both genuine and a quirk. The acting marvel of the picture isAlbert Finney as John Newton, an imposing man. Newton, like most ofthe characters a historical personage, had been a captain of slaveships (he keeps telling us that he transported twenty thousandslaves), then went into the church as a penance and wrote hymns.(He wrote the one whose title is also the title of this film.)Newton has become a spiritual adviser to Wilberforce. When thelatter visits him in his church, Newton is in a rough smock,barefoot, mopping the stone floor. That scene, with Finney's fulltheater voice transforming his self-recriminations into a reminderof a late Verdi baritone aria, should be excerpted for use in dramaschools--if there are any such still interested in large-scaleacting.

Next in praise must come Jenny Beavan's costume designs. (She didthe clothes for such delights as Sense and Sensibility and TheRemains of the Day.) Other designers--there are many talentedones--might have provided this film's dreamlike hats for women andthe sewn-on feeling of the men's trim clothes, but the rough greensmock that Beavan gave Finney for his first appearance is a specialcontribution to the film's truth. The cinematographer, RemiAdefarasin, obviously responds to faces--faces as declarations--andhe lights them always to bring out their individuality, anothermeans to keep Amazing Grace a film and not a tract.

Bamako is a comparable amazement, less so perhaps because it is muchless expensive, but nonetheless amazing because it attacks dreadfulconditions today. Bamako is the capital city of Mali, and this filmis by a native writer- director, Abderrahmane Sissako. The subjectis the exploitation of Africa's people and resources by America andEurope: the film's means to examine this exploitation is atrial--really more of an inquiry--into the power of the World Bank.(The president of the bank, Paul Wolfowitz, comes in for ascathing.)

But this trial is not a huge marmoreal display. To vitalize theproceedings and equally to include the lives of the people who arebeing harassed by foreign exploitation, Sissako's trial is asmall-scale affair, held outdoors in a courtyard through whichpeople come and go. During the proceedings, which are conductedwith utmost gravity and legalism, uninvolved people continue on theperiphery with their jobs or their lack of them. Occasionally weshift to scenes inside a neighboring house. The only consistentstory besides the trial is that of a young woman, a club singer,who lives in that house and is about to leave her husband and childin order to make a living in Dakar, a story with a grim finish. Atone point people in the house watch an African Western ontelevision in which villagers are slaughtered by bandits. (One ofthe bandits is Danny Glover, who is a co-producer of Bamako.) ThisWestern film caricatures popular attitudes.

The judges presiding over the trial are both black and white, as arethe attorneys. The languages are French and Bambara. All dialogueis of course subtitled, except for a long outburst by an old mannear the end that has no subtitles, seemingly to demonstrate theunheard protests of the continent.

Still, the speeches that are subtitled are strong, making a casethat is familiar to every informed person but making it ring. Yetagain we hear that Africa is exploited and brutalized by Westernnations because of what the continent has--as one speaker says,"Africa is the poor victim of her riches." The statistics aboutincomes and life expectations and the smotherings by globalizationare known, but what freshens them here, in this tiny improvisedcourtroom, is the passion, the eloquence, the dignity tinged withanger, with which the lawyers, both men and women, speak. Andduring all the proceedings people flow around the courtyard,sometimes even passing between a speaker and the camera. Sissakomakes his point: Africa's best treasure is its humanity.

? ? ?

The only amazing thing about David Mamet's new book is negative. Heis not only one of the prime American playwrights of our day, he isalso an outstanding screenwriter (The Verdict, Hoffa, Wag the Dog),and he has directed some of his scripts deftly (House of Games). Sowhen Mamet publishes a book of which the subtitle is On the Nature,Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, we anticipateenlightenment. (The main title is Bambi vs. Godzilla.) But his bookis disappointing, amazingly so.

The general tone is off-the-cuff. Everything Mamet says he clearlybelieves-- a good deal of it is on other subjects, such as currentAmerican politics--but much of what he believes about the filmbusiness has been common knowledge for a century. No one who hasany interest in films is unaware of the difficulties of breakinginto film-making, of the arbitrary rewriting of scripts, of thethinly disguised seriousness of producers whose real interest ismoney. (Why is that shocking? What entrepreneur invests without ahope of return?)

Mamet inveighs against film schools at length, but a good deal ofwhat he presents as knowledge wrung from experience, not mereprattle by professors, can be found in a good many of thoseschools. Instance: "To write a successful scene, one muststringently apply and stringently answer the following threequestions: 1. Who wants what from whom? 2. What happens if theydon't get it? 3. Why now?" I can't imagine a teacher offilm-writing, however dull, who wouldn't thus advise.

Mamet contradicts himself. On one page he says: "Tennessee Williams,Truman Capote, Noel Coward wrote women characters that werefantasies of men by homosexual men. Enjoyable, indeed. But hardlyaccurate." On the facing page: "The question is not can one sexwrite for the other--if not, are we to have only unisexualdramas?--but can the individual write? That is, can he (a) see and(b) tell the truth?" Mamet can even contradict on the same page. "Ican't stand Laurence Olivier's acting. He is stiff, self-conscious,grudging, coy, and ungenerous." Two paragraphs later, he says:"This is not to detract from his status as the world's greatestactor. He won that position fairly, kept it honorably, andcontributed to the British, and to the world, theater." And, afterthis concession, whom does Mamet prefer to Olivier? Tony Curtis. (Infact, I admired, though hardly seconded, Mamet's consciously bravepreference. He gives his reasons for steering clear, in this case,of billowy acceptances.)

He pads. He praises Vittorio De Sica in General della Rovere butthen spends a page and a half summarizing the plot of the picture,only to point out finally that the corruption in that film alsooccurs in the film business. Was this trip necessary? Aboutcritics, he runs out the same old objections. Has any artist everreally liked critics? Mamet includes, in his own words, the usualwhine: "Who gave them the right to judge me?" (Who gave artists theright to make art?) But at least he admits that "my work hasbenefited over the years from one or two such. Were such supportersof my work? Yes."

Scattered through the book, inevitably, are some percepts--if notalways fresh, then at least sharply put: "The dramatic experienceis essentially the enjoyment of the postponement of enjoyment." Andthere is a stinging chapter on the fallacies of auditions. But byand very large Mamet's book reads like a stenographic report oflecture appearances (though it is not), with a schmear of authorityto be gobbled up by his audience and with an awareness of thetakeoff time for the plane that will bring him to his nextappearance.