If you’re looking for some weekend entertainment for the whole family, head to your multiplex and see Walden Media’s movie “Amazing Grace.”
Now, this is not a movie based on Newton or his iconic hymn. Rather, it’s an historical perspective on Englishman William Wilberforce and his parliamentary fight against Britain’s commercial slavery. The elder Newton, played by the great Albert Finney, is featured in about twenty minutes of footage.
I’ve seen the pre-release twice now, and continue to marvel at how beautifully the scenes are acted and shot. It’s as if the History Channel swept in, filmed, removed all the voice-over, and said, “Let us educate and move you at the same time.”
I am not an authority on Wilberforce, so I have to assume the scenes depicting his protracted struggle are mostly accurate—his Parliamentary tactics, his core group of abolitionists, his faith, his personal relationships. I am, however, an authority on Newton, so I was a little disappointed that the filmmakers portrayed him as a rough and ragged priest, mopping his church floors in sackcloth. In truth, Newton was rather refined…but this is Hollywood taking their usual liberties.
If you read my book, The Longing Season—the story behind the young Newton and how that period of his life helped shape his hymn “Amazing Grace”—you’ll notice some inconsistencies between the film and the truth. Example: Early in the plot, Wilberforce stands on a pub table and announces he’ll sing a hymn by his old friend, the priest who was a slave ship captain for twenty years. It is well documented in Newton’s autobiography and subsequent biographies that Newton captained a slave ship for less than five years, then retired from the sea for health reasons. Likewise, the famous melody “New Britain” that we and Wilberforce sing was not attached to the lyrics until 1835—well after both he and Newton were dead.
So. I’ve now had my say. But don’t let any of these inconsistencies stop you from seeing such a wonderful and timely film. Think of The Longing Season as a primer and the “Amazing Grace” movie as a complement. My book introduces the conflicted young man who becomes one of many powerful voices for humanity decades later. The subjects of slavery and redemption are still weighty and poignant today, and there’s nothing like a good read and an afternoon in a darkened theatre to explore one’s mind and soul.