“Belle,” directed by Amma Asante, tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. Dido (Gugu Mbatha Raw), as she is called by her family is the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Sir John Lindsay (Mathew Goode), an admiral in the British Navy and an African slave. She is raised by her paternal uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who was Lord Chief Justice of England during the 18th century. While told as a fairytale, Dido’s story is based in fact. Asante’s inspiration for the movie came after seeing a portrait of two women, one white and one mixed-race, who were depicted standing next to each other, indicating they were of equal station.
Dido’s story begins with the arrival of her father to take her away from London’s slums and to the family’s gorgeous country estate. She establishes a strong bond with her white cousin also named Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and the two girls grow up sheltered from many of the realities of 18th-century England. This is not to say that Dido’s life is perfect; she lives with the Mansfields as the proverbial elephant in the room. Dido is forced to live by a complex set of rules created by her uncle. She is allowed to eat breakfast with the family, but not permitted to eat dinner with them. Her alienation is further increased by the art she views in her home. Asante is brilliant in her understated use of portraits of white aristocrats and their black servants. Dido is always cognizant of their existence, and aware that the person she can most identify with is the black servant lurking in the background. However, her family members merely walk by the portrait without contemplating the message depicted by the artist. Raw does an excellent job of portraying a woman who is aware that she is very well-off, especially in comparison to the millions of people in slavery, but still feels alienated because she is hindered by social and racial prejudices. The issue of slavery is addressed almost from the beginning as the movie picks up with Lord Mansfield, who was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, deliberating the case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a case involving the drowning of slaves during their voyage to Jamaica.
“Belle” would not be possible without its cast of well seasoned actors, including Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton and Emily Watson. Wilkinson, as Chief Justice Mansfield, plays a rather stern but loving father figure to Dido and Elizabeth. Penelope Wilton (of Downton Abbey fame) was hilarious as the Mansfield’s spinster aunt and awkward housekeeper. At times Wilton stole the show, either making cheeky remarks or whimsically reminiscing on the love she lost. Tom Felton’s James Ashford is just the right combination of cruel and racist to foil abolitionist John Davinier. While biographical, the film is definitely a romantic period piece, complete with naive stock character Sarah Gadon’s Elizabeth, who falls in love with the wrong man and then suffers heartbreak.
It is Raw’s portrayal of Dido that truly carries the film. At times she is a little uppity; ordering servants around and holding tightly to introduction protocol, while other events highlight her insecurities. Dido is constantly forced to deal with her “blackness,” which makes for a conflicted character. One telling scene shows Dido scrubbing at her skin, as if she is trying to remove the color from her face. It is Asante’s genius that makes these moments real and not cheesy imitations. She does not constantly inundate the viewer with the issue of slavery and Britain’s class culture. It is very subtly woven into the plot, with specific incidents that punctuate the pervasive racial inequality present in England. Dido desperately wants to find her place and she is not afraid to bring up slavery and her place in the world over breakfast.
“Belle” is awkward to watch at times, due to the sensitive nature of discussing slavery and class structure. However, Raw and the ensemble cast bring depth to a story about a woman who was ignored by history because of her skin color. I also think that Belle speaks on more than just issues of race, but also of women’s right’s. Dido remarks that she is twice cursed because she is black and also a woman. This movie does not seek to shame Britain for its past, but to provide another look at the effect of slavery on the lives of millions of people of color. As a woman of color, I enjoyed the movie and felt that Asante and her cast did a good job of portraying the struggle endured by marginalized people. Overall, “Belle” was a great movie and I recommend that anyone who loves period dramas go see it.
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