Well, the original motivation for all this writing about Wilberforce was the film Amazing Grace. It’s a new film that’s due for release on 26th July. Emma got invited to a media screening a couple of weeks ago and I tagged along.
So, What’s it like as a film?
To be honest, Amazing Grace would be a fantastic two part Sunday night feature on the ABC. It feels more like something churned out by the BBC period-piece Dickens/Austen mill, than a big screen affair.
The film opens with a fairly shameless ploy, Wilberforce’s carriage pulls up beside two (appropriately ugly) men who are beating a horse to death. Although Wilberforce is clearly ill, he is unable to turn away from the suffering of the horse and intervenes to stop the men…
…we get the point. Wilberforce is the champion of the oppressed.
And so, you are introduced to the greatest flaw in the film, it has a real penchant for cheese. It’s understandable, when you’re telling the story of truly heroic person it’s easy to touch it up with a golden dinner plate behind the head and plenty of Mozzarella.
But the fact is, really great people just seem greater when you tell their story warts and all.
Fortunately, the power of Wilberforce’s story overwhelms the defects in the storytelling.
There are some genuinely poignant moments: when Wilberforce boards a Slave Ship for the first time and is overcome by the smell; or when John Newton breaks down and confesses that he still hears the voices of the twenty thousand slaves he transported to the West Indies.
And its hard not to give a little cheer at the end when the House of Commons gives Wilberforce a standing ovation as the Bill to Abolish the Slave Trade finally passes into law.
Another positive is that the film doesn’t paper over Wilberforce’s Christian hope or minimise this as the central motivation for his determination to end the Slave Trade.
Which means that the best reason to see this film is to go away afterwards and have a good think about how when the gospel transforms individual minds its also begins to transform societies. Wilberforce was not a limp-wristed “social gospel” hippy, he was not even one of those who argue that we can best commend the gospel through acts of service. No, Wilberforce was a gospel-through-and-through-man. God’s word was at the centre of his life. As his mind was transformed by the words of God, his behaviour in the world was transformed to match. And that meant not sitting around while Africans rotted and died in stinking ships.
Wilberforce simply didn’t know how to live with the comfortable gap between belief and action.
So for all its flaws, go see Amazing Grace, and pray that God would give us more people like William Wilberforce.