A Truly Steadfast and Moral Man

My thoughts on the characterization of William Wilberforce in the 2006 movie, ‘Amazing Grace’.

Something interesting that I noticed in the movie’s portrayal was the mixture of extremes in British society with the members of parliament partying, drinking, going to plays and comedies, and wearing lavish outfits. While here is William Wilberforce at the start of the movie, dreaming of these men who chose to go to a comedy rather than vote where he imagines in the dream that he overturned their tables(a very interesting detail considering that Christ is known for storming the Temple and overturning the tables that various merchants and men had set up, showing an instant connection between the two religious men). Here he is in the midst of all this pageantry while trying to get rid of the enslavement of other people. Of course, I doubt it’s anywhere as extreme as the difference between the rich and poor was in France around this time, but it is still a drastic difference. I can’t imagine how much Wilberforce must have hated this situation, tirelessly working to abolish the slave trade to the point of ruining his own health while others around him could care less about such things.

He seemed haunted by the idea and existence of slavery and spent his career fighting against things that only lead to violence, death, and subjugation as shown in the flashback to his time during the American Revolution, where he advocated for a stop of the war and a relinquishment of the American Colonies so that no more men have to die for a frivolous situation- an incredibly unpopular idea at the time. He had spent so much time advocating for various views and ideas of politics that he had, in 1797, lost his ability to even sing and abhorred the topic of politics due to how pointless it had all seemed, as if he has been speaking to a wall all the decades of his career, making no true progress. His comparison of slavery to arsenic is powerful, showing that every time he sees it, it kills him inside even more. Yet, for many people around him, they think nothing of it, as the nobleman was willing to trade the life of his slave in a card game to get a leg up in the competition and for a bit of pride, not realizing how morally reprehensible the act was. Yet, despite this show that brings him to such anger and frustration, he stands for what he believes and sings the song ‘Amazing Grace’ with the context of the writer of the song and its connection to slavery, shutting up the men in the room itself.

He shows his devotion to religion in praying to God and in his care for the people around him, as he chose to feed the beggar that came to his kitchen door(and implied that it was a regular occurrence). His servant Richard’s statement was a beautiful quote, “It is a sad fate for a man to die too well-known to everybody else and still unknown to himself”. I feel this is a theme for the movie. Here is William Wilberforce, working hard to follow his conscience, fighting against the popular idea, yet wanting to be true to himself and God. He is conflicted between religion and politics and what is to be his path in life; how can he better help the people around him? And yet the various people who William Pitt brings to his house suggest that he can do both: by getting rid of slavery. That becomes his mission in life; to do everything he can politically to find a way to free these men and women so that they can serve God instead of man.

I was truly blown away by this movie and the acting that was portrayed. I have learned about William Wilberforce in school and have always been blown away by the strength of his character in pushing for the abolishment of slavery in England. Through decades of hard work, he near-singlehandedly got rid of slavery in the United Kingdom in the early to mid 1800s. It is easy for people nowadays to look back on the past and say that they would have been right there with him, fighting against the cruel institution, but truly I believe that that is too optimistic and idyllic an idea for, even now, people have no true understanding of how they would respond to a situation until they are put in the midst of it. This is what the idea ‘walk what you talk’ is based on and, unfortunately, too many of us do not walk what we preach. It is not a terrible attribute, but it does have some terrible applications. Typically, it means that people are more likely to ‘stick with the herd’, to be bystanders when faced with a controversial or hard subject. Rarely do they pick one of the two extremes and hold that position. This is a natural attribute of humanity, more a survival instinct that anything.

But, too often are we so set against picking a side or making a decision that we become more of a hindrance and conductor of hurt than a help to the situation. As the well-known quote goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is in the face of this deeply ingrained human characteristic, that William Wilberforce stands. Though I admit that I do not know much about the man himself other than the brief overviews into his actions that I heard in various classes as well as the fact that this post is based on a dramatized version of the situation, I still see the strong similarities between the historical and movie William Wilberforce. This is a morally strong man who cannot deny or turn a blind eye when faced with the evils of the world. He cannot bare to stand in the center and let the institution of slavery continue on.

So, in the face of constant ridicule and derision, he stood for decades as the ringleader of the abolitionist movement, finally achieving his goals in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act, finally realizing decades and decades of effort and determination. How truly incredible a man he must of been and I am so grateful that the creators of this movie saw that and decided to honor him with this movie as his name deserves to be remembered forever. While more than likely dramatized for audiences, it still allows us an interesting look into the character and life of William Wilberforce. He truly in an incredible man who tirelessly worked over and over again to help lift up and rescue people who were shackled and suffering all around the world simply because of the color of their skin. The movie does a wonderful job of showing the human within him, showing his doubts, his frustrations, his failing health, his pessimism, etc.. I think that more than anything shows how incredible he is; he is not some perfect human being or demi-god, he is just like the rest of us. Yet, he showed such determination and strength that he truly set himself apart from the men and women around him. He held himself to a higher standard and did not allow himself to give up or let go of that stance as to do so would be a true sin to him, as if with his surrender all the sins of slavery would be on his shoulders.

Though an exacting and strict decision, it is one that we would all do well to model ourselves after. Just because we are prone to anger, doubt, or misery does not mean we should surrender to that reality, even in the face of the impossible. William Wilberforce was one man facing down the institution of slavery, a truly monstrous livelihood that had sunk its teeth into the roots of civilization and had kept its grip strong over centuries of suffering. Most would, and did, give up in the face of this obstacle, most of humanity decided to turn a blind eye to the situation, not believing that they could do anything to truly change this. But William Wilberforce did not accept this common idea and, through his relentless actions, finally slayed the seemingly everlasting and immortal beast. It was truly a David vs. Goliath situation, to match the religious tones of this movie and brings his story to a modern audience, making sure that his life efforts should never be forgotten, standing as an example of what humans are capable of when we set our goals and push ourselves beyond what we think we are capable of in order to create a better future and world.