To say that February 23, 2007 marked an important anniversary in world history and in human progress would be a great understatement. Two hundred years ago, largely through the efforts of a frail man consumed by his conviction of the inhumanity and evil of slavery, the British Parliament voted to end the slave trade within its empire. The man was William Wilberforce, and director Michael Apted’s new film, Amazing Grace, is his story.
In the film William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd; Horatio Hornblower)story is told in a series of flashbacks as he recounts the story of his life to his future wife, Barbara Romola Garai; Scoop, Nicholas Nickleby).
As a child Wilberforce had lived for a time with an aunt and uncle who introduced him to a former captain of a slave ship turned minister, John Newton (Albert Finney). Newton impressed the young Wilberforce and wrote one of the greatest Christian hymns ever, Amazing Grace during the years 1760 and 1770. After obtaining his degree at Cambridge, William decided to stand for Parliament and at the age of twenty-one was elected to the House of Commons, as was his good friend William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch; The Other Boleyn Girl). Pitt would go on, at age twenty-four, to be the youngest man ever elected as Prime Minister of England. About the same time Wilberforce underwent a conversion experience and entered a difficult time of discernment: should he now live for God alone andbecome a clergyman or continue in politics? He consults the Reverend John Newton and tells Pitt of his quandary.
Then some strangers approach him led by a woman, Hannah More (Georgie Glen; Shakespeare in Love). They convince Wilberforce that he can combine his faith and politics to help change the world by taking up the cause of abolition. Wilberforce researches the issue thoroughly. He meets with Oloudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour) who was captured as a child from Nigeria, and now a freed slave; Quakers and political radicals such as Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell; The Illusionist) speak with him. He visits the holds of slave ships first hand. Finally, Wilberforce becomes an informed and passionate abolitionist and agrees to support this cause in Parliament.
After almost twenty years of every kind of political obstacle and adversary, notably Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds) who held that the economy of the Empire would collapse without slavery, and the political machinations of Lord Charles Fox (Michael Gambon; Professor Dumbledore in several Harry Potter films) who eventually supports the abolition of the slave trade, and the Duke of Clarence (Tony Jones; Finding Neverland; The Painted Veil), a pro-slavery marginal member of the Royal Family, Wilberforce’s bill passes.
Although the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire by Wilberforce’s bill, slavery continued. It wasnot until 1833 that a bill was passed to actually free the slaves. Slaves under the age of six were freed immediately and those older were to be paid for part of each week’s work. By 1837, all slaves in the British Empire were freed after the Crown paid slave owners a whopping £20 million for their “property” (which was only about half their “value”.)Wilberforce had added his name to the emancipation bill shortly before his death, but he did not live to see it passed.
William Wilberforce was not a well man and seems to have been a victim of colitis from a young age. As the film shows, he was treated with laudanum, an opiate, for almost his entire life. This led to his quasi-blindness and stooped stature which the film does not show us - perhaps because it would have just been too much information in a story that was already a challenge to tell because of the political complexities of the issue and the times.
Wilberforce was also sympathetic to the issue of Catholic emancipation in England and was one of the founders of the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals.
William and Barbara had six children, two of whom began to write his biography soon after his death. William gave away enormous amounts of money during his life, as the heir to a merchant family, but died almost penniless when one of his sons borrowed money for a dairy farm that failed.
There is much about Wilberforce’s career and his commitment to living his faith in action as well as the history of slavery that are only alluded to in the film; after all, its running time is just under two hours. For audiences interested in finding out more about William Wilberforce, Eric Metaxas’ new biography (Harper San Francisco, 2007), Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery is an excellent and accessible read.
Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire in the 1830’s, and the slaves freed in the United States on January 1, 1863, slavery continues throughout the world today in the form of human trafficking for economic gain (factory work) or for sex. In a new book Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade – and How We can Fight It (Harper San Francisco, 2007) author David Batstone documents facts and stories that are both horrific and heroic about victims, survivors, and contemporary abolitionists. Human trafficking generates $31 billion a year while moving 27 million people, half of whom are under the age of eighteen, from country to country. The U.S. Government believes that over 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year. For more information, read the annual report from the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at http://www.state.gov/g/tip/ (also visit www.castla.org; the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops http://www.nccbuscc.org/mrs/traffickingweb.shtml; and Amnesty International, www.amsestyusa.org.)
Amazing Grace: The Film
Amazing Grace is an inspiring epic with fine, believable performances from the to-be-expected predominantly male cast ensemble. Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, the World is Not Enough) and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) balance the spiritual and practical aspects of Christianity with sensitivity so that Wilberforce seems authentic rather than a fanatic. In Apted’s film, he remains a responsible citizen of his world, with a social awareness that transcended political ambition and sometimes friendship. Pitt and Wilberforce were great friends until Pitt’s early death; at times almost too easy, at other times, strained to the point of breaking.
According to Metaxas’ biography, Hannah More played a much larger part in Wilberforce’s life and social conversion and I wish we could have seen more of this in the film.
I admit that I was ready to like this film even before seeing it, and I was not disappointed. One beautifully rendered scene, and later reference that I especially enjoyed was how Wilberforce found God in the spider-web in his garden. We often respond to the emotions of relationships in movies, but in Amazing Grace, the emotional component is in the horror and heartbreak of slavery, and in the joy of the passage of the 1807 abolition bill that February day in parliament - that small, mighty, significant step in the ongoing history of the anti-slavery movement that we see from our vantage point two hundred years later – and human slavery still alive, though largely invisible.
I thought the film would reveal more facts about the hymn “Amazing Grace”; instead it gives us insight into the heart and mind of the repentant John Newton, as played by the inimitable Albert Finney. Newton estimated that he was responsible for transporting 20,000 souls into slavery from Africa to the Americas; the film shows that although he never got over what he had done to his fellow human beings, he lived a life of faith and worked for abolition.
A new edition of William Willberforce’s classic Real Christianity has been released, revised, and updated in contemporary English by Bob Beltz (Regal, 2007). Wilberforce confronted what he saw as “cultural” Christianity with what he felt was “authentic” Christianity. His words infuse the film Amazing Grace: “Get going. Be useful, generous, moderate, and self-denying in your manner of life. Treat the lack of positive action on your part as sin…. Seek to form friendships with men and women of other denominations who hold to the essentials of the faith, even if they differ in the non-essentials. Work together with them on this great task ….”
I hope people remember Amazing Grace when next year’s award season begins; it is truly an amazing experience.