Despite some missteps, Belle is an important movie with an engaging storyline that needs to be seen.
When I first heard about the movie Belle I thought it looked like an interesting story, a period British film centered on a black female character isn’t typical to say the least. The historical fiction film depicts the life of the biracial daughter of Maria Belle and Sir John Lindsay. Played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the protagonist Dido Elizabeth Belle is raised by her uncle, William Murray, The Earl of Mansfield in 18th century Britain. When the movie began, I was not sure what to expect. I was holding my breath and kind of wishing I had not paid the fourteen dollars to see uptight British people clutch their pearls and decry this girl’s blackness, but I was pleasantly surprised as things progressed.
With the introduction of an engaging storyline surrounding a court case on mistreatment of Africans on a slave ship, we see Dido Belle undergo a transformation. She develops from a sheltered, miseducated girl into a more conscious young woman, understanding how slavery affects her personally. Though she has always questioned her precarious situation, Belle begins to honestly confront why she’s not allowed to eat with her family at dinner and the paradox of her rare position as a free black woman in high society England.
My biggest fault with the film was in the ending when all things seem to wrap up too neatly. John Davinier, the love interest, is probably the least convincing character in the film because he is so righteous in his beliefs that everyone is equal. He has no alternative motives or reservations–almost as if he’s pulled out of our time period to teach all of these “racists” a lesson. The real John Davinier was a Frenchman who actually came much later in Dido Belle’s history. Liberties were taken to give Belle a typically Hollywood ending. Otherwise I think this movie is well worth it.
The film touches on many heavy topics while remaining stylistically romantic. Classism and racism are examined as backwards infrastructures, the former being a longstanding issue in Britain. Belle is too good to marry anyone that is black because of her social standing, but she’s not considered good enough for the men in her social standing because of her blackness.
Screenwriter, Misan Sagay, set out to make a “Jane Austenesque” film with a black female lead and it allows for commentary on feminism as well, which still today is missing intersectionality. Belle’s cousin, Elizabeth, has no inheritance and no dowry to put towards marriage. Her entire purpose in the film is to find the right man so that her future will be secure. Elizabeth tells Belle that she is lucky as she is set for life with her own inheritance. Later Belle states that she has “been blessed with freedom twice over, as a woman and as a negro.” However, it does not feel like freedom to her to be excluded from love and marriage.
Reading about the writer’s decision to make this movie was a fascinating experience. Sagay originally conceived of the screenplay in 2004 where her inspiration arrived in the painting of Dido Elizabeth and Elizabeth Murray housed at St. Andrews University in Scotland. From there she began her research into a little known historical figure. Without the direct connections she had to the Mansfield family to complete her research Sagay might not have discovered so much about the real Dido Belle. Director, Amma Asante picked up where Sagay left off when she was sent a postcard of the aforementioned painting in the mail.
Why is this movie important?
Too often black notable figures are left out of “mainstream” history, and stories are rewritten to suit the conquerors. When I was studying in London this past year, my cousin told me that her sons learn only Eurocentric histories in school. She began to independently teach them American black history. While there’s nothing wrong with learning about American black history in itself I found it concerning since that history is very limited. US black history is only a modicum of what people of African descent have experienced and accomplished and I’m certain that there are far more stories that were either suppressed, overlooked by white historians or just plain forgotten when African oral traditions were interrupted by the blight of the transatlantic slave trade. Belle is just an example of one of the neglected stories in the commonly told history not just in the UK but the US as well.
In the film, Belle has a wide reaching influence; her existence and her actions set into motion the end of slavery in the UK. Though I’m not inclined to believe that things played out as neatly as on film, it’s certainly thought provoking and has clear basis in the reality of the historical figure. The story of Belle is something I did not previously know of and I’m glad this film exists, one small step to change the narrative.