The Amazing Grace: Between Fact and Fiction
By Chude Jideonwo, 03.16.2007
I deferred watching the ‘The Amazing Grace’ but only with the best intentions. In a way, I was ‘saving the best for last’. After all, this was supposed to be Nigeria ’s ‘first’ 35mm movie (shot on ‘celluloid’, for the uninitiated), flying the national flag at major international film festivals. It is also collaboration between Jeta Amata ( Nigeria ), Nick Moran ( England ); with a budget from both the UK and the Cross Rivers State governments.
The movie starts quite perfectly: the opening shots against the backdrop of Joke Silva’s enchanting voiceover pull you into the story in minutes, setting the tone for a moving tale. It was very beautiful. However, once we move away from this montage, as the voiceover flows into Joke Silva in flesh, the film begins to get uncomfortable. Joke Silva, surprisingly seems out of her depth. The dynamics of her storytelling to her (rather morose-looking) daughter appear forced and flat. Her voice over also fails the test of continuity. Not only does her accent fluctuate from British to something not exactly American, her voice turns strangely hoarse some times, all conspiring to rob it of the much-needed authority.
Still, the film somehow maintains an even tempo, up until the scene Zack Amata gives his rousing cry. This is where the main story starts and the script begins to wobble, eventually dissolving into a heap of clichés. Dialogue sounds rather infantile and it not only does a very good job of portraying the pre-colonial Nigerian as a simpleton, better than any biased foreigner; but also doesn’t give insight – fresh or regurgitated - about the Calabar people. ‘The Amazing Grace’ is not located, as far as history goes, anywhere. Its reality exists in neither the jaundiced history of the conqueror nor even the prouder self serving version of the conquered. There’s no attempt, at mirroring the clash of wills and complexity of emotions with which our forbears resisted foreign occupation (hopefully there was).
That The Amazing Grace casually treats slave trade with kid gloves, nonchalantly colouring it with romance and sad music underscores its thoughtless, and its fatalistic attention to style above substance. It would be burdensome to give examples but the heroine, Ansa’s (Mbong Odungide) first conversation aboard the ship with Nick was absolutely incongruous, made worse by a tortuously long dialogue where the director forgets the girl is supposed to be illiterate!
Then from nowhere, (and take that very literally) we hear: “I like. Take me”. And “I love you”. Shock.
Hold on, love? Where – from the time he unchained her to their standing opposite each other, in the space of hours - did they find love? There’s no attempt to tell a real story: just an assemblage of clichés. Let’s say you ask me: what is the movie really about, which hopefully from all my rambling you must feel a right to know? I can’t give you any answer. It’s certainly not about the origin of the song as the pre-release publicity materials made us believe. It’s not also about the evils of slave trade, and even though the contrived end of the movie struggles to convey this, it certainly doesn’t come off as a tale about the redemption of a slave trader’s soul…
Apart from torturing us with the song (the prisoners sang that one song continuously every ‘single’ day of their incarceration), nothing else even attempted to tell us anything about the song’s origin, apart from John Newton translating it to English. Even worse, we are supposed to believe that John Newton was so touched he translated the beautiful song they hummed endlessly, yet we also know that this man continued slave trade for many years after this ‘life-transforming’ incident?
The film had its fine moments, no doubt. Fred Amata’s performance was consistently sterling – and at the times when he was at the centre of the action the movie was very tolerable, Nick Moran too was very convincing, in fact (with appropriate shame nonetheless) I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes that showed conflict amongst the white ‘captains’ more than anything else (even though, with appropriate joy, I also report that the worst acting also came from the enslaved white Simmons). Ansa was good to look at and there was an innocence to her that was appealing and to complete the chain of isolated fine acting was the chief of the second village.
There were two very bright moments of delightful scripting when Fred Amata engaged his black captor and when the two captains mirrored the contradictions of slave trade (‘When you return to England you shall go to church/ and thank God for your safe return from your pillage and plunder/ for your sake captain, I hope that God is an Englishman’).
P.S: Funny enough, Aunty Nosh in shortening the piece severely blunted it's sharper ends. And they are complaining! So would vessels have burst if they had seen the original version?!)