Once there was a Christian, a man from a wealthy family. He had conservative values, and he crusaded his whole life for social justice. In the end, he changed history. His name was William Wilberforce, and in 1807 he finally succeeded in abolishing the British slave trade.
It is no wonder, then, that a new movie about his life, "Amazing Grace," directed by Michael Apted and opening this week, has its biggest boosters among evangelical Christians. The movie is, by most accounts, problematical entertainment: it's a worthy but lengthy costume drama about parliamentary politics--centered on a Tory most Americans have never heard of. One executive who worked closely on the film calls it "more interesting than good." Its marketing and outreach effort, on the other hand, is inspired. It shows a deep understanding of the new life being breathed into the evangelical community by Bono, Rick Warren and others--people who are making social causes (Africa, poverty, HIV/AIDS) the centerpiece of their faith. The movie's Amazing Change campaign has two high-flown goals: to abolish slavery around the world and to reform society. Seventy-five organizations--many Christian, but secular ones as well, like the Humane Society--have lent their names to the project. Some groups are creating Bible-study and home-school curricula; others are setting up tables at screenings and asking moviegoers for their dollars.
Cynics will say that Bristol Bay, the movie company, is buying cheap, positive buzz through church groups and nonprofits, and they're not wrong. But Bristol Bay has an antidote to such thinking in the person of Zach Hunter, a 15-year-old high-school freshman whose own mission was to abolish slavery long before the Wilberforce movie was in production. Hunter, now the student spokesman for the Amazing Change, is as earnest as a teenager can be. "When I was 12, I heard that slavery was still going on in many parts of the world. And I felt that I couldn't sit by and let this sort of thing go on. I felt that it wasn't enough to feel bad." Three years ago he started asking the students at his school to contribute their families' loose change to antislavery causes. Now he's on tour. "I do think that people of faith, of any faith, have an obligation to bring freedom and help to the poor and the oppressed," he says. The question for Bristol Bay is whether enough of those people will pay to watch a movie about a white man making speeches.