The film Amazing Grace, currently playing in theaters, is a multi-layered story of love and triumph against powerful cultural forces that supported the slave trade in the United Kingdom. On the most basic level, it's the personal story of William Wilberforce, a British Member of Parliament, who championed the abolition of slavery in the UK during the 18th Century. On a deeper level, the film chronicles the cultural conflict between the entrenched evil of the slave trade and the force of the Truth. It is an unabashedly Christian message in our morally ambiguous age.
William Wilberforce, played by Ioan Gruffudd, was only 21 when he was elected to Parliament fresh from Cambridge, where he was graduated in 1780. Soon after entering Parliament he had a profound Christian conversion, and then began a twenty-year crusade against the slave trade. The film chronicles his life from that point on, using long flashbacks to alternate between his early public life and his climatic struggles to achieve a vote against the slavers.
Wilberforce suffers physically during the second act, and his friends show great care and concern for him by seeing to his medication and encouraging him to rest. As the film progresses, his physical suffering from untreatable colitis seems to parallel the spiritual suffering he underwent trying to convince his countrymen of the evils of the slave trade. The film draws us into the debate as we accompany Wilberforce on a tour of a slave ship, guided by a freedman, Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N'Dour). He describes the brutal conditions of the hold where women were raped, the weak were cast overboard to lighten the load, and death stalked each African slave on the passage. Wilberforce and his friends also arrange for a river "tour" of the harbor for aristocrats, causing them to pass close by a slave ship where they could smell the stench of death emanating therefrom. The capstone for me was the scene where Equiano bares his branded chest and explains, "They give you this so that you know that you no longer belong to God, but to a man."
When his suffering is almost too much to bear, Wilberforce's friends come to the rescue by introducing him to the woman who would be his wife, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). She is intelligent and full of life, and, through her, his passion and strength for the cause is renewed. As their love blossoms, we see color return to the screen and the grey of suffering begins to pale. There is one scene in particular that becomes the turning point for his life's work. William and Barbara have spent the entire night talking, he narrating his effort to free the slaves and she encouraging him to go on, when he walks to the window and realizes it has become morning. As the third act begins, he opens the curtains to let the sunrise into the room, and Barbara reminds him, "after the night comes the dawn."
The third act begins with the wedding of Barbara and William, and the story is then completed in a series of scenes depicting the backroom political maneuvering in Parliament. As victory nears, Wilberforce's good humor returns and the story lightens a bit. Clearly his new wife, Barbara, and their children have a positive effect on Wilberforce, even apparently improving his physical condition. At the end, after achieving the political victory with the vote to outlaw slavery throughout the British dominion, he is so recognized for his achievement that even his political adversaries acknowledge his character.
Amazing Grace has a talented supporting cast, including Albert Finney who plays the evangelical preacher, John Newton, author of the popular hymn that lends the movie its name. Newton provides the binding of the film, and in some ways the voice of God, in guiding young Wilberforce to discern how best to serve God. Newton looks him straight in the eye and tells him flatly, "You have work to do." Wilberforce recognizes it as his commission. The rest of the cast is equally spectacular, giving performances both effortless and powerful.
The photography and musical score guide the mood of the film without becoming overbearing, lending credibility to each scene, and immersing the audience in the Britain of 200 years ago.
The film explores a number of themes: the dignity of life, the value of suffering, and the necessity for perseverance for truth, even, with a simple remark by Barbara, of the true end of marriage — being open to life. I was struck again and again by the parallels between the fight then against the slavers and the fight now against the abortionists. As my dear mother often said, "the more things change, the more they remain the same."
Men of faith like William Wilberforce led the way for the abolitionists, and there was considerable cultural conflict between institutions and groups over the issue in America as well. At one time, the U.S. Postmaster General refused to carry abolitionist publications to the South, teachers with abolitionist beliefs were excluded from Southern schools, and even Harvard, Yale, and Princeton resisted the tide of abolitionist feelings in the North and sided with the slaveholders. Predictably, there was conflict between American Catholics and the Pope over the issue, with some American Catholics dissenting from Pope Gregory XVII's bull In Supremo Apostolatus that forcefully decried slavery and the slave trade as a "disgrace from the whole confines of Christianity" and "utterly unworthy the Christian name." Undoubtedly there were some Catholics, clergy among them, who took the position of "personally opposed" to the issue of the permanent bondage of another man.
Just as the Abolitionists were shouted down by "polite and established society," so the Pro-Life Movement is forced to shout to be heard. Once again, the established institutions of Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are on the wrong side of the issue, supporting the murder of the innocent as "choice." Pro-Life teachers are told to toe the line or loose their jobs, just like those who were sent away from the South in the 1850s. And once again, American Catholics, clergy among them, dissent from the magisterial teachings on the subject.
Just as his predecessor did, the current successor to Peter has spoken clearly to reaffirm the ancient Christian horror at the murder of innocent children. In 2005, Pope Benedict said, "For this reason, it is necessary to help all people to be aware that the intrinsic evil of the crime of abortion, which attacks human life at its beginning, is also an aggression against society itself." [emphasis mine]. Just as with slavery, Benedict knows that to cheapen a single human life cheapens all human life, and abortion most certainly reduces human life to a commodity, a child to mere property that a woman may dispose of as she chooses. Similarly, embryonic stem cell research takes tiny human beings and rips them asunder for their parts as one would disassemble a car for the a spare piston.
Some people on the pro-abortion side call for "compromise" and ask Pro-Life persons to "work together to make abortion rare." But there can be no middle ground in this issue because there is no middle state between life and death. Either a person is alive or they are not … and innocent life must be defended. It is our responsibility, it is our duty, it is our vocation.
The success of the Abolitionist movement of the 19th Century should give us great hope, for far smaller groups than the Pro-life Movement inspired great progress in the protection of human beings from slavery. The new terrible slavery that grips the land is on the wane, despite what one might hear in "polite society." Two-hundred thousand people marched in Washington's freezing temperatures just a few weeks ago, and thousands more marched in other cities. Pro-Life politicians are being elected, and slowly the unjust laws that condemn men and society to the bondage of death are being rolled back.
It's really only a matter of time now, and I'm very proud to call myself an Abolitionist.