If you’ve seen the movie Crash, there is a scene where Anthony, a car thief played by the rapper Ludacris, discovers a van with the keys dangling in the driver’s door. Since no one is around, he hops in and drives to a chop shop to sell off the parts. When they open up the back of the van, Anthony and the white shop owner are startled to find a dozen Asian men, women, and children. In stunning immediacy, the shop owner offers Anthony $500 for each one without a tinge of reluctance–haggling for humans like used auto parts.
As the 2006 Academy Award-winning morality tale, Crash is loaded with gut-wrenching scenes meant to prick our racial prejudices and stereotypes. The chop-shop scene came to mind while viewing Amazing Grace, a film about British abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833). Opening in theaters today, the movie’s release was timed to celebrate the exact day of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in England. At that time, the British Empire was heavily dependent upon the slave trade, and Wilberforce dedicated his entire life to fighting the injustice.
Played by Ioan Gruffudd (King Arthur, Fantastic Four), Wilberforce was idealistic, compassionate, eloquent, and tenacious. Being the heir to a sizable fortune, he was elected to parliament at 23 years old (his boyhood friend was William Pitt, the youngest Prime Minister). After experiencing a dramatic spiritual conversion a few years later, Wilberforce struggled with his “secular” political vocation. He was not convinced that he could serve God and Parliament at the same time.
Wilberforce was ready to call it quits until he met John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave-ship captain and author of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace” (thus the title of the film). First seen mopping the floor of a sanctuary in sackcloth, Newton is able to convince Wilberforce that combating slavery would be doing the work of heaven. “The principles of Christianity require action as well as meditation,” says Newton.
In their actual historic meeting, Newton told the young legislator: “God has raised you up for the good of the church and the good of the nation, maintain your friendship with Pitt, continue in Parliament, who knows that but for such a time as this God has brought you into public life and has a purpose for you.”
“When I came away,” Wilberforce recalled, “my mind was in a calm, tranquil state, more humbled, looking more devoutly up to God.”
Faith plays a dramatic and pivotal role in Wilberforce’s actual life. While his conversion and religious motivation are treated respectfully in the film, they are purposefully not preachy. For those who actually have read up on Wilberforce, the depiction is a considerably toned-down version of his religious pulse. Even though the film will definitely be attractive to Christians, director Michael Apted emphasizes a story built around political intrigue, personal courage, and even a dash of British romance.
Gruffudd does sweet justice to Wilberforce. He is fittingly zealous when he stands up in the middle of a refined gentleman’s club and robustly sings “Amazing Grace” to show his well-heeled peers what he believes. In other segments of the film, he is convincingly weak under the weight of various illnesses. These two elements–strength and weakness–are essential to telling Wilberforce’s story and portraying his stoutness of character.
Despite suffering from perpetually bad health, Wilberforce even stopped taking the prescribed opium for his pain because it diminished his mental alertness and rhetorical agility. He collected evidence against the slave trade, introduced abolition legislation, and collected more than 390,000 signatures demanding its end.
Although his accomplishments and courage are celebrated in our modern era, Wilberforce was reviled by many within British society. He was attacked in newspapers, physically assaulted, and forced to travel with a bodyguard because of death threats.
Nevertheless, he was encouraged by lovers of justice such as Newton and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. While on his death bed, Wesley wrote to encourage Wilberforce in 1791: “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be fore you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
The British slave trade was shut down in 1807 because of Wilberforce’s tireless efforts, yet he continued to work until the end of his life to completely abolish slavery in England. In 1833, a bill to outlaw slavery was finally passed. Wilberforce died three days later.
The filmmakers hope to use Amazing Grace to alert audiences that the global battle against slavery is far from over. “Although most nations have eliminated servitude as a state-sanctioned practice, a modern form of human slavery has emerged,” declares the 2006 U.S. State Department “Trafficking in Persons Report.” “It is a growing global threat to the lives and freedom of millions of men, women, and children. Today, only in the most brutal and repressive regimes, such as Burma and North Korea, is slavery still state sponsored. Instead, human trafficking often involves organized crime groups who make huge sums of money at the expense of trafficking victims and our societies.”
“Twenty-seven million slaves exist in our world today,” writes David Batstone in his book Not For Sale–a companion resource to the film. “Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug looms of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa. Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings.”
At the conclusion of Crash, Anthony finds a moment of redemption by freeing the Asian slaves from the back of the van. That cinematic scenario is what modern-day abolitionists hope will take place with the spread of awareness of this injustice. Supported by more than sixty human-rights and religious groups, the filmmakers initiated “The Amazing Change Campaign” in order to promote grassroots activism to end modern day slavery.
In his first speech to Parliament regarding the slave trade, Wilberforce described the unfathomable conditions upon the slave ships and the despicable practice of slavery. After three hours, he concluded by telling his colleagues: “Having heard all this you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know.” The producers of Amazing Grace hope to relay the same message.
– Steve Beard is the editor of Good News and the creator of Thunderstruck.org–a website focusing on faith and pop culture.