Hollywood turns out few films in such nicely wrapped theological packages that are as well-made as Amazing Grace. Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, and The World is not Enough) directs the story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffud), an 18th century British Parliamentarian and devout man of faith who fought for the abolition of the slave trade over an eighteen period. The film chronicles Wilberforce’s friendship with Prime Minister William Pitt, his struggles with opposition to abolition in Parliament, and his relationship with John Newton, a former slave ship captain who confesses his sins and becomes a preacher. Many audiences may not recognize Newton, but they will no doubt be familiar with his famous creation, perhaps history’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Throughout, the film reveals the truth that faith and political activism can indeed go hand-in-hand.
By filming in a simple, straightforward manner, Apted offers the respect and sincerity that such a powerful story deserves. The film follows a cyclical pattern of Wilberforce’s proposed bills and his life outside Parliament. As such, it becomes a serious film that does not take itself too seriously. A star-studded cast, including British actors Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds and Rufus Sewell, enhances this already compelling story, adding humor to the more dramatic elements.
The film finds contemporary political parallels that speak more to a general lack in our current political process than to any particular issue (though the production company is making a concerted effort to link the release of this film to a campaign to end human trafficking today). The film reveals a disconnect between some members of Parliament and their constituents, a distance that seems to frequently increase in our own contemporary political climate. The film expresses this dissonance most profoundly in an exchange between Wilberforce and Lord Tarleton (Ciaran Hinds) when Wilberforce tells him that his arguments will never drown out the voice of the people. Lord Tarleton looks at Wilberforce in disgust and asks in shock, “The people?” as if Wilberforce had deeply insulted him.
Another scene in the film speaks to our leaders (and perhaps to all audiences as well). Early in the film, before Wilberforce takes up his crusade against slavery, he debates whether he should pursue the ministry or a Parliament seat. He walks through his garden one morning, fascinated with the flowers and spider webs, and plops down in the wet grass, in awe of God’s creation. In a subsequent conversation, his butler asks, “So you’ve found God, sir?” To which Wilberforce responds, “It’s more like He’s found me.” Perhaps our leaders, and all of us, should re-discover a similar sense of awe, grounded in humility and gratitude rather than acting as if the world lies at our fingertips.
This film also reveals a problematic practice of politicizing moral issues or moralizing political issues, regardless of one’s political or religious orientation. The question of ending slavery should be a “no-brainer,” but politicians, especially those from port cities, note the economic and political disadvantages of abruptly ending slavery. So much of our current political climate thrives on doing just that. Yet on the other hand, so do many of our faith communities.
Not surprisingly, the film raises several theological issues as well. Finney’s two scenes as Newton are definitely the most emotionally effective scenes in this young year of cinema. Finney’s character poses one of the most difficult theological questions in the entire film. He can assert, “I am a great sinner, and Christ is a greater savior.” Christians may cling to this reality, but the film’s portrayal of Newton’s changed life reveals that such a belief cannot exist apart from personal sacrifice in the pursuit of redemption.
It is an interesting commentary on our society when we look at the lives of influential historical figures like Wilberforce and become cynical and discouraged or view their ideas as idealistic or quaint. The story of Wilberforce reminds us that we need people who will not be afraid to speak some sense to our socio-political troubles. It would have been nice to see more focus on the individuals who helped Wilberforce in his fight for abolition; however, the film’s singular focus on this great man reveals the changes that one committed person can make.
One main criticism of the film concerns its monolithic portrayal of the clergy that does not show the ministers who either implicitly or explicitly supported the slave trade. However, in light of all the successful cinematic dysfunction that fills our cinemas, it is surprising to see a film that takes seriously a story that centers on the moral convictions of a good man. When religion is so often blamed for the evils in our world, it is a relief to be reminded that religion can in fact fuel positive social change.