Amazing Grace: A Review

“Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord or change the world?”

“We humbly suggest that you can do both.”

We packed into a local theater with about 300 others last night to see the opening showing of Amazing Grace, the inspiring story of a man (William Wilberforce) whose faith led him to work tirelessly for the abolition of the slave trade in England in the 18th century. The movie has been promoted heavily in Christian justice circles as a piece of inspiration needed to fight for the abolition of modern-day slaves around the world. Some have even been lauding the movie for its evangelistic potential. So you can be sure that the expectations were high going into the film.

For the most part, our expectations were met. The story of Wilberforce’s journey and impact stands on its own in many ways, so the job of the filmmaker is pretty much not to screw it up. It is the story — not any particular actor, including Ioan Gruffudd, who played Wilberforce — that makes this film shine. The story alternates between Wilberforce as a young politician and new believer eager to change the world and Wilberforce after 15 years of failed attempts to have the English slave trade abolished. His health failing, his spirit crushed, he meets Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), a headstrong beauty who shares William’s passion for abolishing slavery. She would serve as William’s inspiration to pick up the noble fight once more.

John Newton, who wrote the beloved hymn after which the movie is named, plays an important role in Wilberforce’s life. Newton had been William’s preacher as a child before going into solitude and quiet service to God for his remaining years. Before his conversion and entrance into the ministry, though, Newton had run a slave ship, so Wilberforce consulted his mentor and preacher as he considered taking up either a life of politics or a life of ministry. Like others in William’s life, Newton suggests that he can do both, and has a special interest in seeing that the slave trade is abolished. One of the more moving lines of the film came as Newton was finishing up his memoir of his years as a slavedriver to be used for evidence in Parliament. An emotional Newton said these words to William:

I wish I could remember their names. All 20,000 of ’em. They all had names — beautiful African names. We called them with grunts. We were apes … they were human.

OK, enough glowing comments — there were a few downsides. First, the title was a stretch. The hymn played a minimal part in the development of the plot, and I’m afraid it might be a turn-off to some movie-goers who think this is just another proselytizing offering from conservative Evangelicals. This was actually one of the more positive renderings of the Christian faith Hollywood has put out in recent years, and it is a film that a wider audience than just Christians needs to see.

Second, the film pretty much stayed fixated on late 18th century England, and a lengthier visual trip to Africa or Cuba or the New World to see first-hand the horrors of slavery would have broken the monotony (and served as a stronger slap-in-the-face for us complacent moviegoers). Think Hotel Rwanda. There are snippets of this in the movie, but the film follows Wilberforce almost exclusively, and far more attention is given to the Parliament chamber than the sugar fields.

Third, there were several characters whose role in the abolitionist movement wasn’t clear from this movie. A few of Wilberforce’s friends weren’t developed well enough in the film, though it seemed that the writer and director wanted them to play a more prominent role.

Fourth, I have heard that credit for Wilberforce’s successes likely belong to a few less-well-known men who came before him in the name of the abolitionist movement. The film portrays Wilberforce as the sole person deserving credit for the victory, making no mention whatsoever of any of his predecessors. (you history buffs feel free to set me straight on this one … this is just what I heard)

As you can probably tell, I have very little criticism to take away from this film. Perhaps the strongest criticism is of the hype surrounding the movie from modern-day Christian abolitionist organizations. I’m not sure the movie makes the emotional appeal for moviegoers to walk out of the theater and begin working to free literal slaves around the world today. Connected to this, I foresee no mass conversions of non-Christians as a result of seeing this movie, so if that is your church’s motivation in buying a theater-full of tickets, don’t waste your time. The stronger message of the movie, I feel, are these things: 1) the reality that the Christian faith has always included in its tenets a call to take up the cause of the oppressed and voiceless; and 2) the amazing things that can happen when humans — specifically humans driven by a commitment to God — work together to praise God by working to change the world.

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