In an article on William Wilberforce and Amazing Grace in the Opinion Journal, Charlotte Allen of the religious website Beliefnet.com argues that the movie covers up the Christian foundations of William Wilberforce’s political activities that led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire:
Alas, a lot of people watching "Amazing Grace," Michael Apted’s just-released film, may get the impression–perhaps deliberately fostered by Mr. Apted–that Wilberforce was a mostly secular humanitarian whose main passion was not Christian faith but politics and social justice.
This is an utterly astonishing claim.
I categorically disagree with Ms. Allen’s assessment of the film. To give evidence of an absence in a film is difficult, of course, but it is significant that she doesn’t give any examples of specific instances in which Amazing Grace slights religion. All she provides is an interview statement by the film’s director, Michael Apted, to Christianity Today in which he clearly meant to convey that he wanted to avoid preachiness in the film. That is a statement for which I would commend him.
In great contrast with Allen’s assessment, the reviewer for Christianity Today enthusiastically endorsed the film:
Similar to Chariots of Fire and Shadowlands in tone, Amazing Grace balances faith and filmmaking in a historical drama that depicts an ordinary Christian doing extraordinary things because of his beliefs.
It’s a well-told cinematic example of a man who used his faith and God-given opportunities to change the world for good.
In my analysis of the film for National Review Online (previewed on this website over the weekend) I concentrate on how the film’s aesthetic techniques convey its ideas, and hence I don’t give a lot of examples about how the film shows Wilberforce’s religious convictions and how they affect his actions. But that is indeed a strong aspect of the film, pace Ms. Allen.
She fails to acknowledge, for example, the film’s treatment of Wilberforce’s struggle to decide whether to devote his life to politics or the ministry, and his friends’ persuasive argument that his talents would be best spent in politics and hence that is the best place for him to serve God. The first scene in which we see him at home, he is lying on the ground staring in wonder at the pastoral scene around him, and talks to his servant about his great delight in God’s creation.
If anything, Wilberforce comes off as entirely driven by religion and specifically a fiercely passionate relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the hallmarks of evangelicalism. There can be no doubt of this from anyone watching the film fairly and carefully.
In addition, the treatment of Wilberforce’s friend John Newton is about nothing but his Christianity and how it affected his life. And so on, throughout the film.
To suggest, as Ms. Allen does, that this film obscures the Christian foundations of the slavery-abolition movement in a manner reminscent of Spielberg’s Amistad is so wrong as to be calumnious.
The film makes it perfectly clear that Wilberforce’s evangelical Christianity was entirely central to his actions.
My analysis of the film begins with a point about a scene being more subtle than it may initially seem. Perhaps Ms. Allen simply wanted more of a Fox Faith kind of thing. That, of course, is her prerogative, but I’ll take Amazing Grace any day.