Keeping religion under wraps

amazinggraceshipAmazing Grace, an overdue tribute to British abolitionist William Wilberforce, opens nationwide today. The film is well worth seeing, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the Wilberforce story. Like with almost every movie I see, I had some artistic quibbles with it. (And I’m not snooty: I’m hoping to see Reno 911 tonight.) But most surprising to me was how little religion was included in a movie about someone so religiously influenced. Charlotte Allen, who has the same problem, reviewed the film for The Wall Street Journal:

It is rare that a Hollywood film takes up a subject like William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the British parliamentarian who devoted nearly his entire 45-year political career to banning the British slave trade. Alas, a lot of people watching “Amazing Grace,” Michael Apted’s just-released film, may get the impression — perhaps deliberately fostered by Mr. Apted — that Wilberforce was a mostly secular humanitarian whose main passion was not Christian faith but politics and social justice. Along the way, they may also get the impression that the hymn “Amazing Grace” is no more than an uplifting piece of music that sounds especially rousing on the bagpipes.

Her whole essay is worth a read. Andrew Stuttaford hits some of the same points in his review for The New York Sun. But the film is getting good reviews, even from the people complaining about the lack of religion. A particularly good review can be found by Andrew Sarris in The New York Observer.

Earlier this week, GetReligion reader George Harper sent us a note about a New York Times article on the film. The article misstated William Wilberforce’s religious affiliation as Quaker. He was an Anglican with Methodist leanings. Harper twice contacted the Times about the error. Harper passed along the note he got back from article author Alan Riding:

I have just sent you a note plus a copy of a separate version of the story in the IHT [International Herald Tribune], which avoided this error. We will run a correction in the NYT. Thank you for pointing it out. Best wishes, Alan Riding

PS An editor at the IHT spotted this mistake — but no other reader but you has so far signalled it.

Harper, who notes the correction hasn’t run yet, says he’s surprised that other readers of this blog didn’t call the Times about the error.

It’s a good reminder that readers who criticize media reports should notify reporters of their concerns. The vast majority of reporters will work promptly to correct any errors or clarify any mistakes.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Mollie, thanks for the link to the review and commentary by Allen. Two excerpts:

    (1) Nowadays it is all too common–and not only in Hollywood–to assume that conservative Christian belief and a commitment to social justice are incompatible. Wilberforce’s embrace of both suggests that this divide is a creation of our own time and, so to speak, sinfully wrong-headed.

    In other words, it’s a bad assumption.

    (2) The film’s original screenwriter, Colin Welland, who wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed and unabashedly Christian “Chariots of Fire,” was replaced.

    Fire the screenwriter for my favorite movie of all time and expect me to go see your watered-down film, Mr. Apted?

  • Mattk

    How strange that the faith of Wilberforce was left out of the movie. I heard the film maker interviewed on KQED-FM (an NPR affiliate) yesterday and he talked a lot about the faith of both Wilberforce and Newton.

  • joshMshep

    The film ‘Amazing Grace’ absolutely does Not leave out William Wilberforce’s faith — his Christian beliefs are portrayed as essential to his motives and character.

    After having seen it twice, I can tell you that ‘Amazing Grace’ is anything but watered-down… it is a fresh, inspiring look at how one’s personal beliefs should drive what they do in the public arena. From acting to music to locations, the filmmakers did an outstanding job – couldn’t have been better.


  • Samuel J. Howard

    The film may not overly focus on Wilberforce’s faith, but it seems unreasonable to suggest it suppresses it, especially when it has the folks in the New York Times writing things like this:

    The film’s Wilberforce is a fanatic, a true believer, a crusader, a man of action and God, of stirring principle and tireless will. He’s at once pure and seductive, a dashing, romantic figure with a long black coat who talks to God while lying in his garden and keeps rabbits for pets.

    (And yes, I’ve seen the film… there’s plenty of religion there.)

  • Glynn Young

    I agree with JoshMSHep. My wife and I saw the movie last night, despite a mediocre review in the local newspaper. Not a perfect movie — but nevertheless an awfully inspiring one. What comes across clearly is that Wilberforce was sustained by his faith in God through decades of defeat — a lesson for all of us who want to throw in the towel when “our” candidate is defeated or “our” party loses power. His faith is not pitched in our faces at every turn — but it motivates and animates his entire life.

  • Annie

    I saw the movie yesterday, and it most definitely does not ignore Wilburforce’s faith. There’s a scene very early on where he tells his butler about his conversion. The Prime Minister, on his deathbed, says that he wishes he had Wilburforce’s faith at that moment. The meaning of the hymn is explicated fully in several key scenes featuring Albert Finney as Newton.

    I was actually surprised at how much Christianity it included, and felt that the film reinforced the stereotype that Christian films are all message and no artistry. I am actually shocked that the writer also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, which is a brilliantly scripted film. In an effort to include all the relevant elements and hit all of the marks that Evangelicals would require, the writing sacrificed good storytelling. The scene where Wilburforce sings “Amazing Grace” for the MPs at the club is particularly badly handled–forced and contrived in a way that even a junior story editor would’ve noticed.

    Most of the dialogue was on-the-nose: “We’ve been at this for five years.” “Yes, and every year we’ve been defeated.” That’s what we like to call a “duh” exchange, where two characters exchange information that both already know for the sake of filling in the audience.

    And why didn’t we get to see Wilburforce give a rousing climactic speech? That’s what I was waiting for–I was fully prepared to cry my eyes out listening to him bring it all together. I had already welled up during Newton’s speech about the 20,000 souls, and how now that he is physically blind, he can see more than even before. I was ready to be moved, but the movie denied me that pleasure. I think that the wedding scene, where he finds his singing voice again, was meant to be this climax, but it was so badly scripted and directed that I was more embarrassed than anything else.

    Apted seemed to be phoning it in as a director. It was obvious that they were on a tight budget but he didn’t bring anything dynamic to the visual element of the film, and there wasn’t a whole lot of manipulation in terms of the pacing of the scenes–key to a melodrama of this kind. (Manipulation, by the way, is not a bad word when it comes to storytelling.)

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    The title of the film, Amazing Grace, is somewhat misleading. John Newton wrote that hymn and John Newton has an inspiring life story as well.

    My great-great-great uncle, Captain Jonathan Walker, also was a leading abolitionist. He was known as “The Man With the Branded Hand”. Jonathan Walker: The Man With the Branded Hand is the definitive biography of Walker. He named his children after abolitionists–my great uncle, whom I knew and visited most of my life, was Lloyd Garrison Walker, Jr., just like his father, who was named after William Lloyd Garrison. Another son was named after William Wilberforce.

    In studying about my great-great-great uncle and other abolitionists I discovered that the abolition movement had some strong beliefs about faith and religion. These people had faith; organized religion, on the other hand, was another matter entirely. Much of this scorn of organized religion was a perceived lack of action by pastors to speak out or act against slavery and later women’s suffrage.

    Another irony? Many publications fighting for abolition of slavery and promoting women’s suffrage (usually the same crowd) also wrote vitriolic pieces advocating the extermination of the Native Americans.

  • Jill C.

    Hey John, I’ve heard about your 3rd great uncle. There is a monument to him in Muskegon, Michigan. He’s been the topic of some local history and genealogy message boards and e-mail lists. I believe I read a little book about his life once when I was growing up in Western Michigan and becoming interested in certain aspects of American history.

    Looking foward to seeing the movie about Wilburforce and judging for myself.

  • angela

    It may say something about the way films usually treat religion that I thought Amazing Grace was chock full of it.

    John, I’d be interested in reading where the Clapham Circle wrote about exterminating Native Americans?