How sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
This essay is both a review of a truly astounding movie that I sincerely cannot recommend high enough, as well as a history lesson set during the Georgian/Regency Era. I will interweave the two as I proceed in hopes that I can not only educate, as you all know I love to do; but also encourage each one of you to spend two hours of your time and a few dollars for a profoundly moving experience.
Now available on DVD, this movie was released in theaters on March 23, 2007. This was not an arbitrary date, but chosen specifically to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the day that the English Parliament voted to ban the transport of slaves.
It is the incredibly recounted story of Parliament member William Wilberforce (1759-1833), acted brilliantly by Ioan Gruffudd, who fought tirelessly to abolish the slave trade and eventually free all British slaves. The movie deals with the thirty some years from when a young, self-indulgent Wilberforce experienced a radical conversion to Evangelical Christianity, embraced a number of idealistic social reforms in an effort to ‘make a better world,’ and eventually sacrificed his health and nearly his life for the fight against the heinous slave trade. He was aided and inspired by a diverse group of supporters: his dearest friend William Pitt (Benedict Cumberpatch), who would become the youngest man to ever serve as Prime Minister; the abolitionists Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), Hannah Moore, and Rev. James Ramsey among others; fellow Members of Parliament Sir Charles Fox (Michael Gambon) and Lord Grenville; former slave Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour) whose autobiographical account of his life as a slave was the first of its kind in all the world and profoundly instrumental in the abolitionist movement; and John Newton (Albert Finney), a former slave ship captain turned Anglican minister and author of numerous hymns, including Amazing Grace, who was deeply remorseful for his part in the traffic of human beings and was the prime contributor to Wilberforce not joining the ministry as he wished, but to ‘serve God where he was’ in Parliament.
From 1789 to 1806 he would present bill after bill after bill, all of them shot down or delayed due to political tactics and other upheavals such as King George III’s illness and the Regent issue, as well as the war with France. He never gave up though. Finally, on February 23, 1807, Parliament passed the bill to abolish the slave trade in the entire British Empire with a vote of 283 to 16 in the House of Commons, and 41 to 20 in the House of Lords.
The movie ends here with the emotional climax as the vote is read, Wilberforce nearly collapsing in relief as the entire assembly gives him a standing ovation and Sir Fox an impassioned tribute. (To be factual, I read that this tribute was actually delivered by Sir Samuel Romilly, Sir Fox having died the year prior, but I think for the sake of cinema continuity they chose to keep Gambon as Fox rather than introduce another character at the last moment.) The story is woven in chronological order, but also in flashbacks while a defeated and very ill Wilberforce relates his struggle to a young lady named Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai, who is in the new movie Atonement). She will become very important to his life both on a personal level and as further inspiration to not forfeit his cause.
Simply stated, it is a beautiful movie in every possible way. I was crying both times I saw it, back to back, and will probably cry again once I own it! I don’t know about you all, but I adore a tale that speaks of bravery, hope, and inspiration. And all of it is true! His story is told with humor, drama, and a realism that will leave you breathless and aching.
To briefly tell the rest of the story, Wilberforce (left image) remained an activist until the end of his life. He labored for the emancipation of all slaves, this accomplished in 1833, the news reaching Wilberforce three days before he died. He lead dozens of missionary projects, formed the Society for Suppression of Vice in an effort to restore morality, founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that still exists today, campaigned against corruption in the House of Commons, fought for education among poor children, and more. He was regarded as ‘keeper of the nation’s conscience.’ He is buried in Westminster Abbey alongside his lifelong friend, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. His funeral was lavish, attended by members of both Houses, and his pallbearers included the Duke of Gloucester and the Lord Chancellor. He has a monument in Kingston Upon Hull where he was born, and also at Westminster Abbey. The inscription on the latter is remarkably moving and can be read in its entirety on Wikipedia, but I will close with a brief portion here:
In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade.