Last night, Alex and I watched the film Amazing Grace with our family. Simply put, we were blown away by the quality of content and presentation in this powerful film about Christian abolitionist William Wilberforce.
The Story: Wilberforce and the Abolition of Slavery
Amazing Grace recounts the true story of William Wilberforce’s fierce, two-decade long battle as a member of the British parliament to abolish the slave trade in Britain’s vast empire. The film chronicles Wilberforce’s humanity and his heroism; his struggles and doubts, but also his determination and faith—despite years upon years of defeat, ridicule, and treachery.
This kind of story, which matches a politically correct (and morally correct) anti-slavery message with a powerful Christian protagonist, demonstrates a beautiful tension which is verbalized in multiple reviews of the film:
ContactMusic.com: “A film with a premise like this one navigates dangerous territory. No reasonable, sane, or decent person alive today would disagree with Wilberforce’s contention that slavery is a wicked affront to humanity, but nearly everyone alive today is likely to be annoyed by a character animated solely by the goodness of his bleeding heart. Who cares to watch a movie about someone like that?
Nevertheless, there’s something pleasurable about watching Wilberforce’s crusade for all that’s good and right and holy and decent. Whatever your religious or political beliefs may or may not be, it’s nice to dream of a world in which a politician is motivated by his deepest convictions rather than by opinion polls, party lines, and special interest groups.”
New York Times: “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. This matinee idol version might be wildly simplistic, even borderline caricature, but there is also something unfailingly attractive about a film character so wholly devoted to good.”
Over his lifetime Wilberforce launched more than 65 social initiatives, including the first animal welfare society, the first Bible Society, and the first National Gallery of Art. He also helped reform penal laws and child welfare laws. He is a hero that even secular film critics can respect and modern Christians would do well to emulate.
The Film: A Beautiful Masterpiece
Most refreshingly, Amazing Grace, is presented with a level of artistic excellence that matches its positive message step-for-step. Manohla Dargis, writing for the New York Times, comments, “It would be easier to dismiss Amazing Grace… if it weren’t also filled with so many great British actors larking about in knee breeches and powdered wigs; if it weren’t, in other words, an entertainment.”
Devotees of “costume dramas” will recognize beloved actors from Persuasion, Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, Great Expectations, and Elizabeth I, among other productions. Amazing Grace boasts exceptional cinematography, a beautiful score, and a well-written script that is neither maudlin about the horrors of the slave trade nor preachy about the Wilberforce’s motivation of faith. (Source: Solo Femininity)
ContactMusic.com: “Aside from the hotly debated The Passion of the Christ, recent films with an explicitly “Christian” bent have been wholly unwatchable dreck. Christian filmmakers, like the makers of Left Behind and The Omega Code, have sold their fellow believers short, gambling that any movie with the “right” message — no matter how terrible and unprofessional the film may actually be — will attract the faithful in droves. That hasn’t happened. Which is what makes Amazing Grace, well, kind of amazing. While it probably won’t attract the faithful in droves, it’s likely to please the audiences it does attract, and it’s certainly not terrible and unprofessional.”
While we hope that ContactMusic is wrong in one sense—Amazing Grace deserves to, and hopefuly will, “attract the faithful in droves”—they are absolutely right in recognizing that most “Christian” films lack the competence to match their good intentions. Amazing Grace is a triumph for Christian competence in the arts.
The Message: Sacred and Secular Collide
William Wilberforce was a man who allowed his faith to inform his politics and then used his influence to address the greatest injustices of his time. As a result, Amazing Grace issues a sobering challenge to modern Christians to be “men of God and of action”—to inculcate not only the character to be offended at our world, but the competence to change it.
PluggedInOnline: “Amazing Grace reminds us that God’s calling on our lives is not neatly divided into sacred and secular categories. Wilberforce initially submits to this false dichotomy. But thanks to his friends’ exhortations, he realizes that his passions for God and for justice can be fused together. Sacred and secular subsequently crash into one another—forcefully at times. Wilberforce’s faith, then, ends up not only leaving a deep imprint upon British society, but upon this film as well.”
The three pillars of The Rebelution’s message: character, competence, and collaboration, are all powerful represented in this film. The latter beautifully portrayed by the David-and-Jonathan-like friendship between Wilberforce and William Pitt the Younger—two of the youngest members in parliament who together decided to accomplish the impossible.
Action Steps: Watch, Learn, and Act
1.) Go Watch The Film: In the words of Carolyn McCulley, “get thee to the movie theater pronto,” and enjoy one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in decades. Gather a group of friends and go watch Amazing Grace together. This is a film you can invite both Christians and non-Christians to see.
2.) Read More About Wilberfoce: Some historical accuracy was sacrificed in Amazing Grace for the sake of artistic license. Alex and I recommend John Piper’s new biography, “Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce.” It is less than 100 pages long, but it provides a much fuller picture of the God-centered reasons for Wilberforce’s tenacity.
Carolyn McCulley: If there’s a weak spot in the movie, it’s the portrayal of Wilberforce’s conversion as being something that makes him want to sit in wet grass and contemplate spider webs. I don’t expect much better from Hollywood, but the truth as Piper reveals it is much grander in scope.
So go see the movie to enjoy a well-crafted film, but then get John Piper’s book to better comprehend the grace that caused a man to be faithful to God’s call on his life for decades.”
3.) Get involved in fighting modern slavery. Amazing Grace sends the powerfuly message that one determined person can make an enormous difference in the shape of history—especially when he’s surrounded by friends who help him when he stumbles. Modern abolitionists like 15-year-old Zach Hunter are continuing the battle Wilberforce begun hundreds of years ago. Not only does corruption and cruelty still exist, but slavery itself is rampant in many parts of the world.
PluggedInOnline: “Though slavery was officially banned in Great Britain in 1807 and in the United States in 1865, deep injustices still keep millions in bondage around our globe today.
Whether it’s genocide in places such as Darfur, Sudan; or the exploitative sex trafficking of women and girls in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia (among other areas), slavery and savagery still lurk. We may be tempted to believe our involvement in such issues can’t accomplish much, but Wilberforce’s story inspires us to believe that real change is possible.”