As I was leaving the Heartland Film Festival screening of "The Better Hour: The Legacy of William Wilberforce," the funniest memory flashed into my mind...remember those "My parents went to Hawaii and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" novelty t-shirts that used to be so popular? While I'm not quite prepared to call "The Better Hour" a lousy film, it is a disappointing film in what has generally been one of Heartland Film Festival's better years. As I headed off to lunch before yet another screening, I found myself thinking "I headed all the way downtown to see "The Better Hour" and all I got was THIS film?"
You must understand, of course, my reverence for William Wilberforce. An avowed peace activist, Wilberforce is a man I've long admired for his stance on abolishing slavery and his fiery devotion to social justice issues long before social justice issues became popular in England. A man who virtually became crippled by his activism, Wilberforce has long been one of my models in how I choose to live my life utilize my gifts for the bettering of humanity.
Quite simply, he deserves a better film than "The Better Hour," a fine film for say, "The History Channel," but an underwhelming film when placed in the line-up of a feature film festival such as Heartland Film Festival.
The problem with the "Better Hour" isn't the information provided. Wilberforce's is practically made for a film, as evidenced by the feature film "Amazing Grace," largely based upon Wilberforce's exploits. Wilberforce was an active support of 69 societies, or non-profits in contemporary terms, and embraced equality, the abolition of slavery, universal education, prisoner rights and so much more during an era when such things were unheard of in society.
The problem is with the film's over-utilization of sketch graphics, dry narration (by Avery Brooks) that lacks Wilberforce's fiery spirit, indulgent use of water shots, emphasis on camera shots of documents and the disturbing frequency with which interviews were shot in extreme close-up with the shot ending almost precisely in the same spot on the person's forehead.
In other words, despite the wealth of exciting material "The Better Hour" is simply a boring film.
While it's admirable that "The Wilberforce Project" embarked on such a venture and was able to shoot many of the original documents, the film's reliance on such a filming technique provides an incredibly limited audience to the film with virtually no commercial appeal beyond schools, churches and possibly peace organizations (though peace organizations tend to prefer their material a bit more "rah-rah" in spirit). While the film's website does say the film is intended as a television documentary, undoubtedly its "Official Selection" as a Heartland film will assist its marketing potential.
It seems as if every year provides me at least one Heartland film in which I must say "How did that film get in?" This year's "Official Selection" for that question is, sadly, "The Better Hour: The Legacy of William Wilberforce."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic