Back in the early days of Visual Parables (1991) when most reviews were seldom longer than a paragraph a marvelous 90-minute documentary was released by Vision Video. Then it was available in VHS format; today in either DVD or .MP4 Digital download. The technology has changed but not the high quality of this thrillingly beautiful film. I hope that the producers are on their cell phones or computers discussing how they can incorporate Pres. Obama’s marvelous use of the hymn in his eulogy to the fallen martyrs in Charleston!
We are also including the longer review of the feature film of the same name. John Newton is a minor but important character in this story of the life of William Wilberforce, the great fighter against the slave trade in the British Empire in the 18/19th centuries. The great abolitionist regarded Newton as his spiritual mentor. Vision Video sells the DVD of this also, in case you can’t find it locally.
The excellent PBS special is a great treat for all who love John Newton’s hauntingly beautiful hymn. It is hard to believe that 90 minutes could be filled up exploring the hymn without the audience becoming fed up. But such is the richness of the background and the hundreds of ways in which the hymn has been interpreted over the years that there is little danger in the viewer losing interest. One ironical note caught by one of the black performers – that the words of a slave ship captain should so capture the hearts of so many of those descended from the salves he had brought from Africa! Treat your music director or your whole choir to a viewing of this wonderful special. You will find it at better video stores or your public library.
Still available from Vision Video: www.visionvideo.com PO Box 540, Worcester PA, 19490 | 1(800) 523-0226 | email@example.com Customer Service Hours: 8:00 am – 6:00 pm EST
Amazing Grace (2006)
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating: (1-5): 4.5
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
William Wilberforce was less than 5 ½ feet tall, yet he towered over most of his fellow members of Parliament in the latter quarter of the 18th century (except, of course, for his good friend who became Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger [Benedict Cumberbatch]). A gifted orator, he was elected to Parliament at the unheard age of 21 where he became a close friend and ally of William Pitt, son of the previous Prime Minister of the same name. Once converted to Christianity, he, joined with like-minded friends to reform “the manners of society.”
This did not mean just social niceties, but included the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, reformation of the brutal penal code and prison system and of the way in which children were treated, and a host of other social concerns. But he was pre-eminently noted for spearheading the long campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Sad to say that today he is little known in this country, something that I hope that the excellent film Amazing Grace will rectify. Directed by Michael Apted (best known for directing Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist), this is a riveting story of a small man with a gigantic task, one far more revolutionary in its impact than the bloody revolution taking place across the English Channel during his time.
Even had he been healthy, William Wilberforce, called “Wilber” by his friends, would have been incredible, accomplishing so much, despite suffering from a debilitating form of colitis that struck him down from time to time. His doctor brought him some relief from his pain by prescribing the wonder drug of the time, laudanum, an opium derivative, but its side effects sometimes were as bad as his ailment. Steven Knight’s screenplay touches on some of the highlights of this man’s complex life, but obviously has to simplify matters a great deal by combining some characters and telescoping some of the events and time span. (See the book by Eric Metaxas, described briefly at the end of this review, to fill in the huge gaps in the movie story. Available only in the Spring 2006 VP.)
The film opens in 1797 with the 34-year-old Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) stopping his coach so that he can tell a man to stop beating his fallen horse. Wracked with pain and exhausted by all of his battles in Parliament, he arrives that night at the country estate of his cousins Henry and Marianne Thornton (Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel), where they give him the tender loving (and firm) care he needs. They take him to Bath in the twin hopes that its famed waters will help cure him and that he and the woman they arrange for him to meet, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), will be attracted to each other. However, each of them walk out of the situation, not caring to be so manipulated, and it is only later that Barbara comes to Thornton Manor, where she induces Wilberforce to recount his life in regard to his seeking the abolition of slavery.
Thus the film is a series of scenes between the present and flashbacks to the past. We see something of Wilberforce’s conversion from the bland rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, favored by his mother and most of the upper class of society, to the heart-felt faith of the evangelicals, so influenced by the preaching of George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers—though unless you know of this background, you might think that he was led to God by the beauty of nature, rather than a long process of conversations with a close friend, study of the Scriptures inspired by reading a book by Philip Doddridge, and evangelical preaching, for we are shown little of the latter, and Wilberforce is in a garden when he expresses his reawakened faith. I write “reawakened” because, as Eric Metaxas’s book relates, the young Wilberforce had been drawn to John Newton’s evangelical faith during the brief period after his father died that he lived with his Aunt Hannah and Uncle William at Wimbledon, themselves close friends both of Newton and famed evangelist George Whitfield.
Wilberforce’s well to do parents were like most of those of the upper classes, or who aspired to be, despisers of orthodox Christianity as hopelessly primitive and outmoded. They spent their nights playing cards and gossiping, or dancing and going to the theater, so when his widowed mother saw in her boy’s visits and his correspondence a change of attitude toward her frivolities, she smelled “methodism,” and promptly swooped down upon Wimbledon to snatch away her boy, despite the pleas of William and Hannah.
Safe back home, the fervent faith implanted in the boy grew weaker, until at last had almost vanished. Wilberforce grew up to join in all the gaiety and frivolity expected of a young man of his time. Once he became a Christian again, he believed that he should give up politics because of all the maneuvering and compromises required to move any bill through Parliament. His good friend William Pitt, uncommitted to what he regarded as an outmoded religion, argued against such a rash move. Thus Wilberforce pays a visit to John Newton, his old mentor. Albert Finney makes a wonderfully captivating John Newton, except for the ridiculous, ragged monk’s robe they dress him in when Wilberforce comes calling. The two talk of the old days and of his recent conversion, the older man suggesting that Parliament is exactly where he as a Christian should be. “You have work to do!” the old sea captain tells him.
Given a new spirit and impetus, Wilberforce throws himself into the abolitionist cause. Earlier we had seen his keen wit in being able to cut down any sneering opponent, no matter how highborn. A close-knit group of men and women reformers gather around him, most notably Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), James Stephen (Stephen Campbell Moore), and Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour). The latter had been slave in the West Indies, and when brought to England, was able to earn enough money to buy his freedom. He wrote a book about his slave experience that became a best seller, thus helping to raise public awareness of the brutal nature of the slave trade. He and others provide Wilberforce with an education in the misery of slavery, taking the Parliamentary member on a tour of the docks and a slave ship.
What he saw was to haunt the dreams of Wilberforce for years, his conscience never giving him rest as long as the slave trade existed. It was in 1787, seven years after entering Parliament and about three years after his quiet embrace of Christianity, that the small man took up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade. Although opposed to slavery itself, the abolitionists wisely thought that it would be easier to abolish the trade before tackling slavery itself. Slavery and the trade were so embedded in the life of the Empire that few, except the Quakers and John Wesley, had questioned it. Wilberforce soon found this out, with the angry members of Parliament offering a myriad of reasons why abolition would “destroy the Empire.” The first vote on his bill was a disaster, with just a little over a dozen members voting in favor.
It would take twenty years of pleading, educating, demonstrating, and maneuvering before William Wilberforce would emerge victorious—in 1807, this year being the Bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade—and a year after the great man’s death (in 1833) all the slaves of the Empire were declared to be free, almost 30 years before they would be set free in the United States, and over fifty years in Brazil. At one point in the early 1790s Wilberforce actually had enough votes to pass his bill of abolition, but on the night of the vote Parliament’s business sessions often did not begin until early evening) many of his supporters were attending a comedy at the theater, and thereby the bill failed for lack of votes.
Ken Wales and Michael Apted’s film is a fit tribute to William Wilberforce and the cause to which he was so dedicated, as well as to the circle of friends who inspired and supported him in his cause. It is encouraging to see that the producers are tying the film in with the abolition of modern slavery—see elsewhere in this issue the brief reviews of the two books that the film studio has sent out to critics—thus making the film more than just an entertainment event. This is a film that churches should be taking their youth to see and discuss—and in those communities where the film has not been booked, church folk should be calling the theater managers urging them to book the film. This is one movie that really matters.
Those of you who lead film discussion groups would do well to host viewings and discussions of the two films as a tie-in to current history. My review of the feature film in the Spring 2007 issue of VP includes 9 multi-part questions. Should any subscriber plan to use the film and doesn’t have this back issue, I will be glad to send you a digital copy of the guide.