If you’re in the mood to discover how deeply skewed your picture of history is, check out the blog Medieval POC. Popular thought keeps our mental image of the people of various nations rigidly segregated by race (except for trade and war, I guess) up until the 1500s or so. If you want an example of this mindset in action, ask a fantasy fan why there are so few black people in Game of Thrones‘s Westeros and watch them become irate. After the 1500s, we have trouble picturing black people in European societies as anything other than slaves or curiosities. But the truth is that there has always been blending of races, throughout all of history, and there was no time when Europe was all white.
All that preamble is to emphasize the way art, what art we’re shown, and what art we make matters when it comes to our perceptions, both of ourselves as individuals and of whatever group we belong to. The title character throughout Belle, a mixed-race illegitimate child living in 1780’s England, looks around and only sees people like her depicted in a subservient position to whites. But she’s a free black woman in a slaveholding society, and an aristocrat to boot, and she has no idea what her place is in the world. She has been treated as an equal by her white family, but propriety prevents her from dining at the same table as them. She is in a position of financial independence thanks to her inheritance, but her skin color means many prospective suitors don’t view her as desirable. And throughout the film, she comes to realize the full horrors and inhumanity of the slave trade, which is reaching a reckoning with the burgeoning abolitionist movement.
Belle is based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a Georgian Period child to a British admiral and an African slave woman. Dido (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was raised by her great uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), who happened to be ruling on several important court cases concerning slavery while she was coming into adulthood. Not much is known about the real Belle, so writer Misan Sagay takes considerable liberties with the script.
The result is a hybrid of Jane Austen-style period romance and an Amistad-esque legal drama. Belle’s journey of self-discovery is tied to her courtship woes and the trail over the Zong massacre, over which her uncle presides. The two stories are threaded together by John Davinier (Sam Reid), Dido’s main love interest who is also a staunch abolitionist trying to persuade Murray to rule against sailors who killed their human cargo. Davinier’s participation in the plot flips what the viewer might expect from Dido’s position in an Austen romance. Even though she is black, he, a lowly minister’s son, is the one considered beneath her by her family. That reversed power dynamic results in an interracial romance that isn’t bridled with discomfort. When Davinier makes impassioned proclamations of respect for Dido as a person, it doesn’t feel condescending, nor does it feel like he’s a mighty white man graciously stooping down to his social inferior.
It helps that Sam Reid is the swoon-worthiest period love interest to come along in a while. These kinds of stories live and die on whether they can sweep the viewer off their feet and get caught up in the romance. It completely works here. You want Dido to end up with John, who is hunky and intelligent and sweet and progressive, and not that other douchebag (James Norton) who only wants her for her money. It is not an emotionally nuanced storyline, but its sincere as all get-out. There’s also a less-successful plot involving Dido’s cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and her own difficulty finding a husband. Gadon and Mbatha-Raw are fun together, but Elizabeth’s story never quite comes to anything and ends with a shrug. Which isn’t a big deal, since it’s not her movie, but the time given to her is not insubstantial.
Wilkinson has some wonderful interactions with Mbatha-Raw. Murray is a decent man positioned as an antagonist because he’s afraid of what will happen to his beloved niece if he lets her beyond the safe confines of his household into a world that doesn’t respect her. And he knows in his heart that there’s only one right way to rule in the Zong case, but is afraid of the possible upheaval that could result from that ruling. This film positions Belle as the one who pushes him to do the right thing, which we have no historical proof of being true, but still makes sense. You can’t tell me that having a mixed-race family member didn’t factor into the real Murray’s decisions on the bench.
Other British “that guy”s pepper the film. Penelope Wilton, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson all appear to have fun playing various types of costume drama ladies (Watson is the matronly one, Wilton is the sharp-tongued matriarchal one, and Richardson is the boo-hiss scheming one). Tom Felton appears not just to have accepted, but embraced the fact that being Draco Malfoy has typecast him as an asshole forever, and he dives into another such role with relish. Matthew Goode plays Belle’s father, but he’s in the film so briefly that his name’s presence on the poster is baffling.
As has become the standard for British period pieces, the production design is impeccable. I’m fairly confident that by now most British set designers, costume designers, makeup people and the like can pull this off in their sleep. With director Amma Asante (A Way of Life) at the helm, a story limited to a few locations feels much more expansive and is all the more immersive as a result. She also does a terrific job of juggling the myriad stories together, a few slip-ups such as the one with Elizabeth excepted.
Belle is an extraordinarily uncommon kind of movie. It not only stars, but is written and directed by black women. It’s edited and scored by women, as well. In fact, it has the most female-dominated above-the-line roster of any major movie in who knows how long. But don’t seek it out for that reason alone. Seek it out because it’s an involving romance, a rousing human rights drama, and an intelligent look at self-identity. In one heartwarming moment, Dido finally sees a portrait that depicts her in an affirming way. While watching Belle, many young women could find themselves in a similar circumstance.