AMAZING GRACE starring Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N’Dour WRITTEN by Steven Knight DIRECTED by Michael Apted. Bristol Bay Productions.
Reviewed by Dahlia Fraser, Program Administrator, MDiv In Ministry
In March, this year the spotlight was cast on the life and work of the outstanding Christian and public figure, William Wilberforce, with the release of the movie Amazing Grace. The release commemorated the 200th anniversary of the passage of the bill to abolish the slave trade by the British Parliament. The bill passed on 25th March 1807, nearly twenty years after it was first introduced. It was a long and arduous campaign led by Wilberforce whose Christian conviction spurred his efforts despite numerous setbacks and seemingly insurmountable odds.
The film is about this struggle. When we recognise that the British economy (and by extension the vast British Empire) was at that time sustained by the profits of the slave-driven plantation system we appreciate the tremendous forces that Wilberforce challenged in the name of God.
Of course Wilberforce was not alone in this. There were many Christians who were already challenging the system of slavery and other social ills. Most notably the Clapham Sect, a small group of Evangelical Anglicans to which Wilberforce belonged and who urged him to take up the matter in parliament. Some members of this group — Thomas Clarkson, Henry Thornton and Hannah More are portrayed in the film.
Though others were involved in the campaign Wilberforce had the particular task to take the fight to the law makers and it is on his contribution that the film is focussed. The bill was defeated again and again in Parliament not only because it threatened the financial base of the country and the incomes of several of the MPs themselves but also because many thought moral considerations had no place in political discourse. Wilberforce thought otherwise. Morality and faith should permeate all aspects of society. In fact in 1797 he published a book on practical Christianity in which he argued that Christianity is far more than private morality.* By the time of the events portrayed in the movie Wilberforce had come to see his calling from God as working for the betterment of society, specifically "the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners."
The movie does not do a very good job of exposing Wilberforce’s motivations. The producers are prepared to show him as a passionate do-gooder who talks to God and of God but shy away from any explicit reference to Christianity. Wilberforce is shown worshiping on his own in a field near his house, never in a Church. Few symbols of the Christian faith are allowed in. Further, John Newton, spiritual mentor to Wilberforce is portrayed as a broken, guilt-ridden, recluse rather than as the Church of England clergyman he was.
Notwithstanding their avoidance of Christianity, there is no obscuring the important Christian themes in Wilberforce’s life: faith and society, morality, the call of God. What is God’s work? Serving in public life versus serving God is the choice Wilberforce thinks he faces and wrestles with at the start of the movie. "God found me. Do you have any idea how inconvenient that is?" he asks. Wilberforce like many Christians first assumes that a response to God’s call meant a career in the Church, yet his passion was for social reform and his political career was blossoming. He came to see that there was, in fact, no conflict, his profession and public position were the very spheres in which God desired to use him.
What lessons are here for the many who still maintain an artificial separation between faith and life? What lessons are there for those who recognise this falsity and seek to combine both?
The title of the movie comes from the weaving together of two life stories. While the focus is on Wilberforce a recurring motif is the journey of John Newton from dissolute
slave ship captain to Christian. A journey captured in the famous hymn, Amazing Grace which he wrote in 1779. His tortured memories of the cruelties inflicted on slaves shows the breadth of the evil Wilberforce fights. It is not only the Africans who are enslaved by this wicked system. The slave owners and traders also need to be freed.
Despite its heavy themes, the movie is enjoyable. The writers have told the story well, with wit and humour. We are given glimpses into other aspects of Wilberforce’s life - his courtship, marriage and family life, his philanthropic ways. His friendship with the Prime Minister, William Pitt is particularly well handled.
I was moved by this movie in four ways particularly. I was humbled by Wilberforce’s courage and determination. How weak is our excuse when we say "I’m concerned but I am only one person, what can I do?" As a descendant of enslaved Africans I felt gratitude to God and the people He used, Wilberforce and others in Britain, the Caribbean and other parts of the world to bring an end to the transatlantic slave trade. I was saddened because slavery is still widespread and I was hopeful because of the power of the Gospel.
Bristol Bay Productions has done well, to celebrate Wilberforce’s amazing contributions to society.
This is a must-see movie for Christians. Historical inaccuracies aside, it is inspiring and challenging. Its central themes are the very questions we face as we seek to live our faith in our society.
Amazing Grace will be available on DVD November 13, 2007.
* Wilberforce’s book, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity, was re-published in 1996 as A Practical View of Christianity edited by Kevin Belmonte