For most Americans, William Wilberforce isn't a household name. Amazing Grace may change that. This powerful film recounts the celebrated English reformer's fierce battle to abolish slavery in the British Empire. It also chronicles the faith journey of a man who struggled to reconcile his passion for justice and politics with his natural inclination to retreat into a secluded life of spiritual contemplation.
The film opens as the 18th century is trailing to a close. Eight years of fruitless effort promoting abolition have left Wilberforce (a junior member of Parliament in the House of Commons) demoralized and depleted. One observer comments that he's given his youth and his health to a failed cause. Chronic illness has forced Wilberforce to retreat to the home of his cousins Henry and Marianne Thornton to rest and reassess his wherewithal to keep championing an unpopular idea.
The Thorntons introduce Wilber (as his friends call him) to Barbara Spooner, a fiery young woman whose zeal for the abolition movement matches his own. And as he recounts his history to her, lengthy flashbacks fill in his backstory and introduce us to an idiosyncratic cast of supporting characters who play important roles in the battle against slavery.
Among these is the ex-slave trader turned pastor and musician John Newton, who serves as Wilberforce's mentor. The young reformer's best friend is William Pitt, whose political ambitions lead him to the position of prime minister at the tender age of 24. Pitt introduces Wilberforce to two other important reformers, the freethinking (and free-drinking) itinerant preacher Thomas Clarkson and an erudite former slave named Oloudah Equiano. Finally, an old fox coincidentally named Lord Fox switches sides after being convinced of Wilberforce's argument. The cagey older politician's help is invaluable as Wilberforce seeks to outmaneuver parliamentary nemeses Lord Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence.
Wilberforce is first seen admonishing two men beating an exhausted horse to stop. Wilberforce loves the poor, too, often inviting them to eat at his estate. When one of his political peers wants to use a slave as ante in a round of gambling, Wilberforce walks away.
The ambitious-but-principled Pitt tells Wilberforce, "We're too young to realize certain things are impossible. So we'll do them anyway." The pair enjoys a deep friendship that's assailed severely but ultimately stands the test of time. Even when Pitt is unable to help his friend openly, he still offers private counsel on how to avoid being labeled a seditious traitor.
Wilberforce's zeal for abolishing slavery is fully ignited when his new friend Equiano gives him a tour of a slave ship; the former slave describes in detail the horrible conditions slaves are forced to endure. After that, Wilberforce takes up the cause in earnest despite fierce opposition.
While confronting a group of well-to-do Londoners with the horrors of what goes on aboard a slave ship, he tells them, "Remember that smell. ... Remember that God made men equal." His work secures 390,000 signatures in favor of abolishing slavery—among them Lord Fox's, who risks his political career by doing so.
When Wilberforce doubts whether he has the stamina to carry on, Barbara's faith in him rekindles his energies. But even while struggling, Wilberforce won't countenance talk of revolution. When Clarkson hints that the government might have to be overthrown in order to abolish slavery, Wilberforce sternly rebukes him: "I've pledged loyalty to the king. ... Never speak of revolution in my presence again."
Newton's song "Amazing Grace" serves as a metaphor for Wilberforce's life. Wilberforce sings it in front of his political peers as a kind of personal anthem. He loves to escape to country spots to pray and ponder nature. While there, he begins to question whether his penchant for spiritual solitude renders him unfit to be a politician. Wilberforce concludes that he's called to serve God and others by shaping public policy, saying, "God has set before me two great objects: Suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of society."
Newton is instrumental in helping Wilberforce embrace that calling. Newton tells him not to expect lightning-bolt answers ("God sometimes does His work with gentle drizzle, not storms"). And on a more practical note, Newton recognizes Wilberforce's natural rapport among his peers ("People like you too much [for you] to live a life of solitude"). Not only does Newton recommend a political career, he exhorts his pupil to confront the slave trade. "I can't help you, but do it, Wilber. Do it. Take them on. Blow their dirty, filthy ships out of the water. ... Do it, for God's sake."
Likewise, when Pitt introduces Wilberforce to a group of anti-slavery crusaders, one of them says, "We understand that you're having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist. We humbly suggest you can do both. ... Surely the principles of Christianity lend to action as well as meditation."
Newton, meanwhile, is haunted by "20,000 ghosts"—the lives of those he sold into slavery. Though he's wracked with guilt, the old man cleanses his soul by confessing those misdeeds in his memoir, which reads, "Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I'm a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior." As a pastor, Newton embraces simplicity and renounces worldly trappings.
A terminally ill Pitt confides in his lifelong friend, "I'm scared, Wilber. At this moment, I wish I had your faith."
Barbara and several other women wear tight, cleavage-revealing dresses. A husband and wife share a kiss. Wilberforce confronts a politician's manipulation of facts by using a joking metaphor that alludes to a husband and wife's relationship ("If he calls [1 in 4] half, I'd hate to be his wife and share half his bed"). Passing references are made to politicians spending money on whores and young girls being debauched.
Wilberforce has a dream in which he envisions shackled slaves (including children) laboring close to a fire. One is consumed by the flames in a hazy blur. In his dictated memoir, Newton details the torture captured Africans were subjected to. ("The slaves are then whipped with ebony bushes to let out the congealing blood," he says.) In a similar conversation, Equiano graphically relates how slave traders use a knotted rope to keep potential buyers from realizing the slaves on sale had dysentery.
Drug and Alcohol Content
In Wilberforce's high-brow world, social drinking (wine, sherry and champagne) is frequent. Many scenes depict Wilberforce and fellow politicians imbibing over meals. Still, in a dark dream Wilberforce angrily sweeps aside wine bottles and glasses of a privileged group watching an opera; here, alcohol seems emblematic of decadence and indifference.
Clarkson uses a wine metaphor to describe the revolutionary spirit spreading from America to France ("The Americans pulled the cork out of the bottle, now the French share the wine"). And that's no surprise, as he carries a small flask of alcohol with him and is shown drinking from it in many scenes. After slavery is abolished in England, Clarkson pours some alcohol onto the grave of Equiano (who's passed away before that final victory).
Wilberforce is plagued by crippling abdominal pain. Doctors tell him it's untreatable; the pain can only be medicated. One physician offers Wilberforce opium, which he initially refuses, saying it will cloud his thinking. The pain, however, is too great, and Wilberforce eventually uses the drug for relief. We glimpse a doctor mixing it. And the film implies Wilberforce becomes dependent on it. Eventually, he abstains because he wants to be fully present for the victory of the abolitionists and for the birth of his first child. Swearing off the drug leaves him vulnerable again to wrenching stomach pain, but he chooses to endure it.
Many movies pretend importance. Few, however, make good on their lofty ambitions. In contrast, Amazing Grace isn't landing at the multiplex with a multimillion dollar ad campaign trumpeting its arrival. And yet, the messages it delivers are important.
Not the least of these is the fact 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. Wilberforce's commitment to abolition ultimately led to the demise of the British slave trade. But watching this film, we're just as aware of his humanity as his heroism. He struggles. He doubts. He's tempted to give up as he battles physical pain and dependence upon painkillers. And yet, with the encouragement of Barbara Spooner (whom he marries), William Pitt, John Newton, Thomas Clarkson and Oloudah Equiano, he soldiers on to victory—almost 20 years after wading into battle.
Equally important is the film's unequivocal message about the value and dignity of every human being. 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.
Finally, 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.