Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Amazing Grace

Directed by Jeta Amata

“We are humans not because of our ability to hate, but our capacity to love.”

One of my favorite hobbies as a film lover is watching the development of cinema in foreign countries, particularly those that do not have a long established film tradition. It is not an easy hobby. Many film makers in poorer countries are unable to get their work distributed. So it makes it very difficult for viewers in other countries to see films from areas like Micronesia, the Middle East, and Africa. But with the development of cheaper film-making equipment and the advent of the internet, many fledgling movie industries have been able to introduce some of their work to the outside world. One of the truly amazing success stories of the past few decades is of the rise of Nollywood.

Nollywood is a term coined to refer to the film industry of Nigeria. While many might snicker at its name, it is considerable harder to mock when one discovers that the Nigerian film industry is the third most lucrative in the entire world. Even more unsettling (at least to those who initially underestimated the strength of Nigerian cinema) is the fact that if countries are ranked in terms of how many films per year are produced, then Nigeria is the largest in the world, second only to India. It is believed that about 1,000-2,000 Nigerian films are released every year. They are usually very cheap. Each film usually costs between US$17,000 – US$23,000 and only takes about a week to film. This allows for a very quick turn-around for investors who can expect to sell thousands of copies in a short time. They are frequently filmed in hotels, homes, and offices that are temporarily rented out. Many of these are then advertised in the film’s credits. While some are filmed in local languages such as Hausa, Yoruba, and Edo, many are filmed in English, allowing Nollywood films greater access to international markets. In short, through a combination of thrifty filming techniques and business savvy production decisions, Nollywood has become one of the most powerful voices in the world of film.

And yet, so few have ever heard of Nollywood. Even fewer people have ever seen a Nollywood film. Why is this? Well, even though Nollywood films are widely distributed in many markets, they still have yet to make a decisive breakthrough in Western circles. The simple explanation is that, while Nollywood makes thousands of films a year, not very many of them are very good by Western standards. Many are sloppily made, poorly directed, and have the “extra’s curse.” The “extra’s curse” is when a film’s extras do not know how to properly act in front of a camera. And so, there are many instances of extras turning to the camera in the middle of a crowd and smiling, laughing, and sometimes even waving. Perhaps the directors and editors don’t notice. But I suspect that they do not consider it to be a big problem. Why should African extras act like Western extras?

And that is the inherent charm of Nollywood. We are watching a film industry build itself from the ground up. It is like watching a child teach itself how to stand up, how to walk, and then how to run. It may fall down a few times, but eventually it will get it right. The real fun begins when the child learns how to act on its own decisions. I cannot wait for Nollywood to reach maturity. Some say that it already has. But I disagree. I think that Nollywood has a long way to go. But once it arrives, it will produce some of the greatest cinema that the world has ever, or will ever, see.

So how can one get initiated into the world of Nollywood? Simple. Just watch Nollywood films. Of course, this can lead to some very trying problems. How do you get a hold of Nollywood films? There are many sites where you can download Nollywood films online, but I personally don’t trust websites that ask me to give them my credit card number. And even if you do manage to get a hold of a Nollywood film, how do you know if it will be any good? Well, I would like to introduce you to what might be the easiest Nollywood film for beginners (i.e. Westerners) to digest. That film is 2006’s The Amazing Grace.

Written and directed by Jeta Amata, The Amazing Grace deals with one of the most important themes in Nigerian cinema, religion. Nigeria is a land of many religions, but the two most dominant are Christianity and Islam. Nigerian films often concern issues of religious diversity and what role religion plays in life. The Amazing Grace deals with one of the most important aspects of religion: faith in times of trouble. To be more specific, how faith aided captured slaves during the slave trade. Indeed, much like the similarly titled but unrelated Amazing Grace by Michael Apted that came out the same year, The Amazing Grace deals with the story of Captain John Newton, a reformed slave-ship captain who would go on to write the most famous hymn in history. But instead of focusing on the operators of the trade, The Amazing Grace deals primarily with the slaves themselves. Through their actions John Newton is saved by grace. Not just any grace, but the amazing grace.

The story begins with an old slave telling a younger one about how they used to live in Africa. The year was 1748. The location was Calabar. She recalls how wonderful life used to be. “We were a happy and contented people. We were a free people, a people who made their choice on where to be and how to be.” But of course, things would change with the arrival of the white man. Natives start to disappear. Families are torn apart as relatives go missing. Then, it is revealed that the white men are kidnapping them. Of course, they don’t know this at first. The white men promise them jobs and better lives if they go with them. But when they don’t meet their quota, they resort to raiding villages. They are destined to be “freight” on the ship named The Greyhound, captained by John Newton. The narrator explains that “He was a man who had been brutally abused and enslaved by his own quest for adventure and wealth.” Now, John Newton did not take part in the raids at first. He was under contract with a man named Oliver Platt whose job was “to capture and see to the well-being of the slaves while John Newton steered the ship home.

Platt is a cold, cynical man. He casually rapes captive slave girls and acts perfectly natural when it is announced that they may lose a good half of their slaves on the voyage home. He is in constant conflict with John Newton who believes that they should be treated humanely, even if they are just animals. Of course, this changes after a slave saves his life when he falls overboard during a storm. As the narrator says, “He was destined by God to be saved by his prisoners…He was destined to receive the amazing grace.

Things change for John Newton. He starts to see the slaves as people instead of just animals. He finds out that one of his crew mates named Simmons has taught them to speak some rudimentary English. A charming conversation takes place here:

It seems that given time, you will have them reciting the Book of Common Prayer.” - Newton
More than that, Sir. I’d have them discuss it.” – Simmons

He asks Simmons about a song that they have been singing since their village was raided. Its tune is familiar to us as the melody of Amazing Grace. But to John Newton, it is just an entrancing song. He is told that it is a hymn that the villagers sing to beseech their god for grace. John Newton is surprised that they only have one god.

Simmons says, “There are many names, but only one God.

Later, there is a scene where one of the slave girls confronts him on the ship and asks about the fate of her people. He tells her that they will be sold and made to work. It is a painful scene. He has obviously not had the time to come to terms with his life-changing experience. All he can do is sadly continue the conversation. He finds out that her name is Ansa and that she was traded by her lover for drink. He tells her that his name is John Newton. She hears it as “John Johnnewton.” She asks him to let them go free. He says that he can’t. She tries another tactic: she asks him if he has a woman. He says just one. She laughs and says that he is weak because he only has one. He replies, “Where I come from the strength of a man has nothing to do with the amount of wives that he has.” They exchange playful glances. It is obvious that in another world they could have been together.

The rest of the movie may be difficult for Western viewers to stomach. John Newton teams up with Ansa to help him recruit more villagers for slavery. He promises that he will only make them come if they want and that they will be treated properly. Ansa convinces several village chiefs to send his people to America. Eventually, he is betrayed and is almost lynched for enslaving native Africans. Ansa comes to his defense and convinces the mob to let him live. They let him live on one condition: he must stop his “tribe” from enslaving their people. What happens next I will not ruin. It is a sad ending, but one tinged with hope for the future. Many probably won’t be able to appreciate it because they will still be recovering from the sight of seeing black people helping white people to enslave their own tribesman. But let’s consider this for a moment. We are dealing with African sensibilities, not Western ones. As I already mentioned, it was written and directed by a native African. Who are we to dictate how they should feel about their own history? The best we can do as outsiders is to try and understand the reasons behind their logic. Yes, we think that blacks shouldn’t enslave other blacks. But I think that the film was trying to make the point that if such things should happen, the prisoners should be treated with dignity. It is a matter of manners and respect, not morality. But what right do I have to interpret it? I could be completely wrong.

But that is the beauty of world cinema: we are introduced to different viewpoints and opinions. Despite the fact that many may find the ending discomforting, they cannot deny that The Amazing Grace is a film of monumental power. Not only is it a story told through the eyes of Africans, it is a story told through the prism of African traditions, culture, and values. It is a looking glass into the cultural melting pot of Nigerian society. As Nollywood continues to grow, and all indications point to the conclusion that it will, its directors and films will begin to be appreciated by foreign audiences. They will see accomplished masterpieces of distinctly African sensibilities. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t appreciate the films that helped Nollywood get there. The Amazing Grace is one such film. It is a film of great strength, great wisdom, and great courage about the bonds that link all humans together. It is a film that recognizes the amazing grace that reminds us that we are always children of God.

The editor would like to thank Elisabeth Cameron for suggesting this film.

You can watch The Amazing Grace here as of the time of writing this article:



  1. Wow; sounds like a fascinating film! So... is it a true story? Clearly John Newton was a real person, but how accurate is this portrayal of his life and transformation?

    1. Rather fanciful. The tune "New Britain" wasn't associated with the text of "Amazing Grace" until the 19th c, towards the to late 1830s. While the authorship is sometimes attributed to John Carrel of Virginia, the tune has roots in southern Appalachia. "Amazing Grace" was only one of Newton's hymns, and it was written on Common Meter (CM) and was sung to a number of tunes in Newton's lifetime.

      This seems to be John Newton's life as "Braveheart" was to William Wallace's. Inspiring and romantic, and as the writers and directors wished it to be.

    2. But considering that it comes from a Nigerian point of view, it's an important glance into how Africans regard the colonization of both their peoples and culture.

  2. From what I can tell it is a true story. Whether or not the romance is true is a different story. But I do believe that the core story of the film is true.

  3. Bravo! Lovely review of the movie. The slave trade was horrible beyond belief, both due to the actions of the Europeans and Americans who ran and profited from the trade and due to the actions of African nations and peoples who also ran and profited from it. I first watched this movie with two Nigerians who are active in Nollywood. They liked the movie because it showed the many different ways that people were enslaved and for the idea that the tune for Amazing Grace was originally Nigerian. We will probably never know where the tune originated, but this is one theory in the academic circles.

  4. Oh, well I'm flattered. It is an interesting movie because it tells the story of the slave trade from a different point of view. But it is also a powerfully made film in its own right. That's what I love about the cinema, it gives different peoples and cultures a voice.

  5. Thanks for providing classic nollywood movies..
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