A reviewer on Internet Movie Database wrote that, at the Toronto Film Festival screening he attended, the thunderous applause for Amazing Grace continued throughout the credits. People were visibly moved; they “clapped to the point of hurting their fingers with the thunder they were creating for so bloody long!”
Sadly, I don’t think that’s the reception the film received upon general release in the U.S. But maybe it depends on where the film was showing, and maybe I’m wrong in my broader view of its reception, as we didn’t see it in a theater ... and just because I don’t remember any fervent hoopla when it came out in 2006 doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. I could have been in snooze mode at the time.
K and I watched this on DVD in 2007, when he would have been ten or so. My initial fear that it might be too “Masterpiece Theater” for him, or just too ... British (accents, vernacular ... you know what I mean!), eased up half way into the film, but I have to confess that its somber and cerebral tone was a bit of a challenge. Every now and then K would look as if ready to launch from the couch, vibrating with what I call “itchy blood,” but then something would happen on the screen that kept him tuned in.
It’s not an easy subject, by any means. Amazing Grace recounts the struggles of politician William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd), who one day decides he must lead the way to abolish slavery in 18th-century England. From an older, wiser film goer’s point of view, I have to say the story is deliciously full of dirty politics, clever and cunning people, plenty of sheer guts and determination, and the strong, witty screenwriting helps those things blossom to their fullest potential. It's really quite a stunning work (and, as befitting its "British-ness," was done in a quiet, subdued tone, with occasional dry, Brit humor ... it feels distinctly not Hollywood). For a kid, there is a lot of this wonderful writing/dialog, and there are some conceptual and philosophical explorations that might not speak to younger kids. Only you can determine if it’s something your child can stay with and follow through to the end.
As far as the unpleasant topic goes, the film’s not as jarring or brutal in its depiction of the tragedy of slavery as some have been (say, the R-rated Amistad), but it’s still difficult. This is really for mature kids, and honestly, probably those over 12 would get the most out of it. I think K absorbed some pretty serious food for thought in watching, but I don’t think he’ll ever say he really enjoyed it, or that he can even recount the story in detail. I think he can recount that the song, "Amazing Grace," was written by the remorseful former owner of a slave ship (beautifully played by Albert Finney), and that's not too bad.
But of course, even by osmosis, Amazing Grace and films like it do steal into our children’s hungry, sponge-like little brains and plant seeds that grow into their own sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice. It’s a movie experience that can only make them better people, even if they only grasp half of what’s being said.