Friday, April 06, 2007

Film Notes: Amazing Grace

We're just back from the cinema, having been to see the much vaunted film, "Amazing Grace" about William Wilberforce's campaign in parliament to abolish the Atlantic slave trade.

In many ways this is an excellent film, but one not without its weaknesses too.

On the negative side, the film pays but a single sentence's recognition to the slaves own fight for freedom, and the inclusion of one black ex-slave in the central cast. This could all too easily make the freedom to which they were entitled, to appear to have been a benevolent gift from 'worthy' white politicians - and is an error of selectivity which Wilberforce's direct social-spiritual heirs, like TearFund, are careful not to make today.

This criticism however does not negate the value of the film. Wilberforce is a subject well worthy of film treatment in his own right. History remains a potent force for both understanding and shaping our world and as such we have a need both to disavow our colonial heritage as we have to celebrate our heroes, people who saw through the errors in the value-systems of their age. The omission of the slaves' story is problematic - but the telling of the Wilberforce story remains stirring for people like us, born into comfort, inhabiting a world of need.

The film might also be justifiably accused of soft-peddling the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional horror of slavery. On the other hand, such soft-peddling enabled the film to be rated a PG - with the most grotesque elements being referred to rather than depicted. It also avoided the danger of using this most sensitive piece of history as a gratuitous piece of entertainment or audience manipulation. The PG certificate and materials produced for schools and churches will greatly increase the potential for good coming from it.

One thing the film certainly soft-peddles is Wilberforce's conversion and life based upon his Christian faith. Historians have make Wilberforce's 'evangelical conversion' as the central organising thought of his lifetime's devotion to a host of social reforms of which abolition was but one. The film gave the impression that the abolitionists had a view of human rights - but this is quite misleading. The 18th and 19th century evangelicals instead had a doctrine of human dignity - based on the notion that all are 'created in the image of God'. This key belief - which led to not just abolitionism, but also the parliamentary campaigns against child labour, limited factory working hours, and free education (associated with figures such as Lord Shaftesbury), and also the charitable responses to the Victorian city, such as hospitals, hospices, orphanages and mental hospitals. If the next film needing to be made is on the slaves own story, the story of the Clapham Sect should also be told.

Strangely the film conversely overplays the spiritual-conversion-leading-to-abolitionism of John Newton. The film portrays the old hymn writer as being haunted by the memories of slaves he once transported and an ardent abolitionist. The truth however is far more complicated. It seems more likely that the immediate effect of Newton's conversion was that he stopped raping, beating and mistreating slaves and sought to increase their comfort, then abandoned the trade and only became a strident abolitionist later in life. Newton's social awakening was a slow one it seems. We are all people of our time. An interesting discussion was started in my church a few months ago when Jim asked us to imagine what future generations will consider to be our most glaring sins - which we are perhaps oblivious to.

One lovely moment the film dealt with very nicely though was a dialogue between Wilberforce and Hannah More in which the newly-converted politician is wrestling with the choice of "using his lovely voice to praise God or to make a difference in the world" ie pursue a political career or a spiritual vocation. More tells him that he must do both. This is a wonderful scene because in three lines of dialogue it exemplifies the holistic nature of Christian faith, serving all aspects of our humanity; it sets up the possibility of a dualism in which the different strands of the Christian life are pitted against one another - and then demolishes it. The early evangelicals like Wilberforce did not recognise this dualism - a belief which so characterised later fundamentalism; and so here the film has a crucial message for today's church.

The film benefits from some notable performances. Albert Finney's John Newton is rather eccentric, but yet strangely compelling, Benedict Cumerbatch is brilliant as Pitt the Younger (one of the most compelling pieces of on-screen ageing I have seen), Michael Gambon portrays Fox delightfully, almost as a parliamentary Gandalf! Ciaran Hinds as the 'baddie' is also excellent.

The 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade is something in our history that we should note carefully. One tragic fact is that there are now millions more slaves in the world than there were two centuries ago. If agriculture was the driving industry in this trade then, today it seems to be the sex-industry and drugs. Slave ships may no longer sail the Atlantic- but every day vulnerable people are trafficked into this country to be exploited.

The extent to which those of us who are white and British can share responsibility for the sins of our forebears, and should repent of them to the descendents of the original victims; can be debated almost endlessly. There is no doubt that many descendants of slaves feel the weight of the oppression of theirs, most acutely. What we should do though is to ensure that the stories of abolitionists, both white and black are told to inspire us to continue to work together against the evil of slavery. This is a good film, albeit a flawed one - but certainly one which demands a response.

Some relevant links:
The book, "Slave Testimony: 2 Centuries of Letters, Speeches and Interviews", edited by John Blassingame focuses on the African-American experience of slavery and is useful reading.
Stop the Traffik : a coalition of many charities working to eradicate the slave trade today.
TearFund: A Christian charity and one of the StopTheTraffik partners helping many young victims of sex slavery to escape violent pimps and people traffickers and to gain skills and employment. - the official film website.


Steg said...

Interesting post and thanks for the references. I went to the film knowing almost nothing about the ending of the slave trade. I didn't think it was a great film, but thought it was interesting in its portrayal of the basic issues - and yes, some of the acting was great. I thought Wilberforce's Christianity came over fairly strongly. What annoyed me about the film was that the things they seemed to be putting in for colour were quite dull, whilst the machinations of parliament were fascinating and could have been expanded. One other thing that bothered me was that some bits must have been inaccurate - sitting on the grass with his butler, sitting up all night unchaperoned with a young woman. If they invent those bits what else is invented? Still a good film to see though.

That Hideous Man said...

That Hideous Man said...