Interview Patricia Hanlon
Photos Walden Media, L.L.C.
Walden Media's Amazing Grace is based on the true story of William Wilberforce's 20-year crusade to abolish the British slave trade, finally accomplished by Parliament in 1807. Kevin Belmonte '90, whose biography of Wilberforce, Hero for Humanity (2002), was conceived as a "literary handshake" reintroducing Wilberforce to a contemporary audience, was the lead historical consultant for the film. Amazing Grace will open in the spring of 2007, on the 200th anniversary of this legislation. STILLPOINT interviewed Kevin from his home in York, Maine.
STILLPOINT: Can you comment on the power of film to convey stories?
Kevin Belmonte: I remember vividly watching Richard Harris' portrayal of Oliver Cromwell when I was in junior high school. There in Mr. True's class, history came alive for me, and I began to have some notion of how films can stimulate a person's historical imagination. I experienced much the same thing when watching Ken Burns' miniseries The Civil War. I have often thought such experiences can serve as what Wilberforce called "launchers"--they can be catalysts for important and instructive discussions. Films can also prompt an exploration of literature or other forms of art--and other disciplines such as history.
SP: What's gained and what's lost in translation from written text to film?
KB: As to what may be lost, one does, for example, lose the wealth of detail presented in a biography. But then, films have the ability to cast in sharp relief overarching themes and moments that might be somewhat obscured in a highly detailed or lengthy biography. In the making of Amazing Grace, I have observed a process of distillation to essential elements--economy of language in particular but also of selection of characters or scenes. These things remind me in some ways of the craft of poetry, where one can only use so many words to communicate ideas or feelings. Yet the best poems succeed amidst the constraints. Seeing how Steve Knight undertook the task of crafting his script--especially through the kinds of questions he asked me, questions framed with a view toward making Wilberforce and his times come alive, taught me things I hope to carry forward as a writer.
SP: Why, according to Wilberforce, should Christians be involved in political life?
KB: Wilberforce believed-as Oxford scholar Robin Furneaux has put it--that "Christianity should be carried into every corner of life and be allowed to fill it." Wilberforce rejected the notion that "full-time Christian service" only applies to the ministry or the mission field. He would agree with Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch reformer, who said, "There is not a corner of the world of which Christ does not say 'This is mine.'"
As a Member of Parliament Wilberforce represented the most powerful constituency in Great Britain. To have stepped down from that position of power and influence would have been a great loss--with hindsight we can see just how great a loss.
SP: Wilberforce was an enormously creative and forceful individual, but he was also sustained by a dynamic network of other believers. The "communion of saints" was a vibrant, present reality for him.
KB: Yes--when Wilberforce was in the midst of his embrace of evangelical Christianity in the mid-1780s, some friends urged him to retire from public life and consider entering the ministry. But it was John Newton, the hymn writer and parson who had once been a slave ship captain--a man guilty of crimes against humanity--who became Wilberforce's spiritual counselor and set his young protégé on the path of service to humanity. Invoking the deliverance language of the Old Testament Book of Esther, and the examples of Daniel, Joseph and other biblical heroes, Newton told Wilberforce it was for "such a time as this" that he had been placed in a position as a powerful Member of Parliament to secure the abolition of the slave trade. It was in the House of Commons, Newton stated, that he could best serve God.
Besides Newton, Wilberforce had a group of friends and politicians with whom he worked. It is generally agreed today that he and his Clapham Circle colleagues did more than any other group of political reformers to make Britain a more just and humane society.
SP: What does the "communion of saints" look like in your own life?
KB: Os Guinness' friendship has meant a great deal to me--we share a common devotion to Wilberforce's legacy. Os has said that Wilberforce is the greatest reformer in history. It was many years before I received the opportunity to write my Wilberforce biography, but Os has always been there offering encouragement, pushing me to write, giving forthright counsel and the gift of a listening ear. Chuck Colson is another staunch friend who has had a longstanding interest in Wilberforce. In many respects Wilberforce is a model for the work Chuck, Prison Fellowship and the Wilberforce Forum have sought to do. While I was doing research for my master's thesis I learned of Chuck's interest in Wilberforce. He wrote a Foreword and an Introduction for two of my books and remains a friend to any effort seeking to foster a renaissance of interest in Wilberforce. His book How Now Shall We Live? continues the literary tradition established by Wilberforce's A Practical View of Christianity; that is to say, a book that sets forth the gospel and then explains how Christianity can be applied to every area of life.
I have also been blessed by my relationship with my 83-year-old cousin, Joseph Frost. We're both cousins of Robert Frost, and in addition to the many works by Frost we've looked at together, we've also read or recited the poetry of Longfellow (another of our cousins), and one of my favorite poets, William Cowper. Joe has so much poetry stored in his memory and continues to be a student of history--always curious, always grateful to learn. It means a great deal to me that he has come to revere William Wilberforce's memory and writings.
But my most profound debt is to my wife, Kelly. I know, and God knows, what she has sacrificed to make Hero for Humanity, as well as my part in Amazing Grace, a reality. I bless the day she became my wife, and I thank Him for all the days we have shared.
Kevin Belmonte was an English major at Gordon and met his wife, Kelly (Griswold) '88, there. He holds an M.A. in church history from Gordon-Conwell. Besides Hero for Humanity (forthcoming in January 2007), Kevin is the author of Travels with William Wilberforce: The Friend of Humanity; 365 Days with Wilberforce: A Collection of Daily Readings from the Writings of William Wilberforce, and editor of William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity. The Belmontes live in York, Maine, with their son, Sam, born March 6, 2006.
1. William Wilberforce, played by Ioan Gruffudd, relates the battle to end slavery to a hero-worshiping Barbara Spooner (Ramola Garai).
2. John Newton (Albert Finney) contemplates his complicity in the slave trade and what he can do to end it.
3. Wilberforce unrolls a massive petition in the House of Commons decrying the slave trade.
4. Wilberforce aboard a slave ship docked in port.
© 2006 Walden Media, L.L.C. Used by permission.