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A Forgotten Part of British History: Belle

CONTENT NOTE: This review will contain spoilers.

by Shane Thomas

If I asked 20 people to name me a superhero movie, I’d expect to get a high degree of variance in the answers. But if I asked for a movie about slavery? I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to foretell that the majority response – especially at the moment – would be 12 Years a Slave. And as much as I hold Steve McQueen’s film in high regard, I confess I worried it would be (through no fault of McQueen) forever perceived as the film about slavery, reducing centuries of horrific violence and oppression to a 134 minute story.

Which brings us to Amma Asante’s, Belle. The story is set in a Britain where slavery remains a legal and quotidian part of the country. Navy officer, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) has fathered a mixed-race child, Dido Belle, with an (unnamed) African slave. Called away to the seas, he entrusts his daughter to his brother, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his family.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as 'Belle'

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as ‘Belle’

As Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) approaches womanhood, she has been raised as any other member of the Mansfield family, with key exceptions, such as being unable to have dinner with them.

Dido lives a relatively privileged, and deliberately sheltered upbringing. While she isn’t ignorant about her race, she is yet to reconcile its sequela. She is initially guileless, depicted with doe-eyed credulity by Mbatha-Raw. Her relationship with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is one of surrogate sisterhood, and the story shifts into gear when the topics of romance and marriage come into play.

Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) is tasked with helping Elizabeth find a suitable husband. Dido’s race is seen as disqualifying her from potential matrimony[1], but she is permitted to accompany her family in London for “the season”. A likely match comes in the form of the Ashford’s, led by avaricious matriarch, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), and her two sons, Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton)[2].

The Austenesque courtship intersects with the trial of the Zong Massacre, which Lord Mansfield presides over. The case concerns the death of over 100 slaves, and could have wider ramifications on Britain’s relationship with the slave trade. Mansfield comes under pressure from John Davinier (Sam Reid), a former student of his, to speak out against the evils of slavery. Davinier also has feelings for Dido, and something of a love triangle develops.

In interviews, Asante (who goes uncredited as the film’s writer) has said,

“I wanted to prove you could put a woman of colour, front and centre, in an Austenesque piece of work.”

In the early stages of the movie, Dido is racked with self-loathing. At one point, she tries to claw her blackness off her skin, her face a terrain of tears. W. E. B. Dubois once wrote, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Because while Dido is loved by her family, her sheer presence provides problems that would not occur if she was white. But she gradually understands that while she is seen as a problem, she is not the one with the problem.

Dido becomes more politically aware, taking an active interest in the Zong Massacre, in turn increasing her own self-awareness. There’s a lovely scene where a black maid in Dido’s London home is the first person to teach her how to take care of black hair. To quote Dubois again, Dido has to traverse double-consciousness[3]. Asante has described the story as being about “conditioning vs. instinct”.

In conjunction with cinematographer, Ben Smithard, Asante delivers crisp visuals, with skilful use of shadow on the actors faces. The colour scheme starts in austere fashion, but as Dido’s confidence grows, the palette is broadened. I also liked the sprinkling of family melodrama. Personally, I’d love to see Asante make a contemporary version of something like Rachel Getting Married.

The supporting roles from Wilkinson and Watson are both first-rate. I’ve never seen Wilkinson be bad in anything, while Watson is arguably Britain’s most underrated working actor[4]. However, the focus is on Mbatha-Raw, and she carries the film adroitly[5]. She displays a layer of discernible melancholy, as she struggles to find a sense of self. Not to make all black woman actors monolithic, but there’s a bit of Kerry Washington about her.

Belle is a film that is both familiar and revolutionary. Much like the painting that inspired the story, it positions a black woman in a place where we’re not used to seeing her. Subject rather than object, depicted as a person who is valued, treasured, and worthy of love. Such optics may seem trivial to some. Trust me, they’re not.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825)

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825)

Slavery was not – and is not – a single story. While not following the exact events of the time, Belle still functions as an important piece of history. While 12 Years a Slave probably can’t be shown in schools, due to its violence, there’s no good reason to leave Belle off the curriculum[6].

However, Belle’s most potent legacy may be on the British film industry. Often when one thinks of British cinema, images are conjured of cockney gangsters, middle-class whimsical comedies, or tales of working-class northerners triumphing against the odds. And are nearly always about white people. Well, Belle is just as British as any of them. If nothing else, the film shows that we live here too. And we have done for a very long time.

[1] – However, the death of Dido’s father at sea leaves her with a substantive inheritance.
[2] – If you had Felton in your “Who from Harry Potter will spend the rest of their career typecast” sweepstakes, you can collect your winnings.
[3] – Something that will likely strike a chord with many people of colour living in Western nations.
[4] – Watch The Politician’s Husband if you don’t believe me
[5] – Not to say, I told you so, but… yeah.
[6] – But while Michael Gove remains Education Secretary? Not a chance.

A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply SyndicatedA lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

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4 replies »

  1. I enjoyed reading this post so much, and now I am so wanting to see this film. I read a few of Jane Austen’s novels,and I often thought it would be great to see one of her movies played out with a heroine of African descent. Belle looks like a good start.

    • Well, you no longer need to imagine. ‘Belle’ very much fits along those lines. Asante herself was a big Jane Austen fan, and in some ways, the film is a manifestation of her own double-consciousness.

  2. There are many black people as part on British history on an equal level with whites, but we aren’t taught about. The Greeks and other white nations thought so highly of black people that they even made statues of them in places of honor, again never spoken of.