Friday, September 01, 2006

All Your Wilberforce Are Belong To Philip Anschutz

"It's like Amistad, but with lots more religion."

Bring on the 18-century political intrigue, my friends! An American film distributor has purchased the rights to a film based on the life and work of British abolitionist William Wilberforce, titled Amazing Grace, which was financially backed and produced by Walden Media, the same production company that brought us Holes, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the upcoming How To Eat Fried Worms. Walden Media, owned by Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz, has promised to launch an educational/marketing program dealing with slavery in today's world and social steps people can take to combat it.

In an interesting Walden Media twist, what might make the film appealing for evangelical Christians is the fact that William Wilberforce was an evangelical Methodist and a friend of John Newton (where we the get the title, "Amazing Grace", I'd presume). Wilberforce worked for much of his life as a member of British parliament in opposition to the Empire's slave trade. While not an outright abolitionist in the sense that he wanted to see every slave freed, he did fight for an end to the gross inhumanities perpetuated by the global slave trade. With the evangelical angle, Wilberforce's story seems an easy fit for targeting a Christian audience (evangelical or otherwise).

But what's really piqued my interest are the players involved in the production of the film. While Anschutz's Walden Media can boast a fine pedigree for getting evangelical butts in the seats for The Chronicles of Narnia, Amazing Grace may be an entirely different film altogether. Handling the scripting chores is Steven Knight, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on Dirty Pretty Things, while director Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough, Nell, HBO's Rome) oversaw things from behind the camera. If not for the inclusion of Walden Media, I would assume the pic to have an R or PG-13 rating based on the creators involved. While an R rating for a story based on the crucifixion of Christ might not hurt a movie's chances for reaching evangelicals, it could turn that same audience away from a historical film dealing with British politics.

But the plot thickens a bit when you add to the fact that Chuck Colson (conservative Christian founder of Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint ministries) has an evangelical think tank named in honor of Wilberforce, the Wilberforce Forum, whose mission is to "help Christians approach life with a biblical worldview so that they can in turn shape culture from a biblical perspective." Said think tank deals with issues such as the Federal Marriage Amendment, cloning, embryonic stem cell research, creationism and global human rights. While I might not line up politically with Colson, I harbor the man no ill will, mostly due to his fantastically readable autobiography Born Again, and also due to the fact that he was the first evangelical leader to come out in support of the Harry Potter series of books. That being said, getting Colson behind Amazing Grace would be a gigantic first step in marketing the film to conservative Christians, which is why having an owner like Philip Anschutz behind Walden Media will be an important piece to that puzzle.

No matter who the film is marketed to, and no matter what rating it's given, I'm looking forward to what ought to be a fairly engrossing film. Wilberforce -- coming from a wealthy family, converting to Methodism at an early age, and spending such a large part of his life in opposition to a lucrative business for English slave traders and the British crown -- is an interesting character, and if the pic is done well, worthy of a good two hours. Let's just hope that in an effort to appeal to the broadest possible audience (young children included), Walden Media doesn't feel the need to sanitize certain events in order to maximize its profits. Wilberforce was a flawed individual who fought for a righteous cause during a very ugly time. Looking at the players involved, I hope they have the courage to tell that story, warts and all.

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