Belle2

Courageous Liaisons: The Racialicious Review of Belle

By Arturo R. García

Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) begins to question her place, to the chagrin of Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson).

It’s only fitting that director Amma Assante’s Belle, a movie that culminates in a court, makes its own case crisply, and clearly. There’s a sense of some romanticizing, mind, but even that is based on hard evidence: the real Dido Elizabeth Belle did have a happy life.

So, admirably, Assante and writer Misan Sagay don’t try to inject pathos where it’s not necessary. Nor do they overplay their somewhat stacked cast, instead keeping Gugu Mbatha-Raw at the center, which she ably holds up. Because her story — at least, this story — positions her at the intersection of her own nascent questioning of her place in the world and her mentor’s role in shaping its future.

The story wastes no time showing us how the titular character (referred to by her first name, Dido) is thrust into, literally, a white man’s world. While the intentions and affection of her father, Sir John (Matthew Goode) are sincere, the fact remains that her mother’s death leaves her — and, more crucially, her experiences and insights — unable to help her as she’s placed in the care of, first and foremost, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson).

And so, what starts as protection for the child becomes part of an increasing set of restrictions: “How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low to dine with my family?” the adult Dido asks his Lordship early on, a question that doubles as the starting point for her burgeoning quest for self-realization.

For Mansfield, the country’s Lord Chief Justice, the question couldn’t come at a more problematic time: he’s been called upon to rule on the case of the infamous Zong massacre, a 1781 atrocity in which 142 slaves were thrown to the sea, and their death,
by the crew of the ship taking them from Africa to England. The ship’s owners then attempted to cash in on their insurance policy for the slaves, arguing that their lives were worth no more than 30 pounds a head. And the company wanted its cut.

Dido’s interest in the case is piqued by Mansfield’s budding new protege, John Davinier (Sam Reid). History Spoiler: In real life, Dido Belle did marry a man named John Davinier after Mansfield died. But it doesn’t appear like the actual Davinier followed Mansfield into the courts as a vocation.

So Reid’s job, which he takes with the right amount of proto-liberal gusto, is to serve as the sounding board for Mbatha-Raw’s Dido as she continues to reconcile the privilege her bloodline gives her with the prejudice it generates from others. “I have been blessed with freedom twice over,” Dido tells John, alluding to the inheritance that spares her the financial worry of finding a husband. “As a Negro and as a woman.”

It’s to the film’s credit that this conflict emerges so subtly as the film’s real triangle; it’s a coming-of-age story that visits “traditional” Victorian dating tropes but, because of Dido’s situation, can afford not to center exclusively around them. Likewise, it’s a story about slavery, in part, but not a slavery movie. We see Dido finding her own way toward the more inclusive world this Davinier symbolizes.

At the same time, Dido begins to separate herself from Mansfield and the paternalistic world that probably fancied itself as protective as he is, and one that even he must admit, personally and in ruling against the Zong’s owners’ insurance claims, is drawing closer to the end. At least as played by Wilkinson; a new biography, however, places the real Mansfield closer to what we could call center-right today:

Although he was fond of Dido Belle and always fair to her, there is no evidence that she influenced his views. In fact, the judge’s famous ruling in the case that later helped to dismantle slavery was the result of his slow acknowledgement that slaves had rights in law.

“The film is right to suggest Mansfield is closely associated with the cause, but he did not want to bring down the slave owners in America, or even to end slavery,” Poser said.

“He did, however, eventually rule that the practice was so suspect it would have to be set down in deliberate legislation if it was to continue, rather than simply being supported by common law and precedent.”

The real Dido Belle in a painting alongside her cousin Elizabeth, as commissioned by Elizabeth’s father, the Earl of Mansfield.

When the film does show Dido straining against her society’s mores, it takes care not to do so in isolation. Even if her cousin/companion Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is jealous that she gets more attention in the courting scene, she’s also aghast that the family won’t let her “go out” into it.

Similarly, Elizabeth is nothing but happy that Mansfield commissions a painter to show them side-by-side for the portrait that inspired Assante to make the film. But there is a quiet moment where it’s the family servant, Mabel (Bethan Mary-James) who helps Belle figure out how to better take care of her hair. There’s a smile of community between Mabel and Belle, with Elizabeth watching from the background, quizzical but not angry at watching “the help” provide something to Belle that she’s not able to.

Fans scoring this alongside other Victorian films should come away satisfied by Belle, which ably utilizes Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton and Tom Felton (still capably sneering after all those Harry Potter years) to show the machinations surrounding Belle and Elizabeth, buoyed by Anushia Nieradzik’s costuming. But the film not only represents a big moment for women of color this year — a Black director, screenwriter and star in a period film that finds a way to inject a new take into some old, but still necessary conversations. Quite the picture, indeed.

  • http://mclicious.org/ McLicious (Sarah Hannah Gómez)

    This was a fantastic film – validating in that way when you get a piece of media that speaks to your experiences and viewpoints and refreshingly different in what it dealt with as far as period dramas, romance, and slavery. Good all around. And good for the industry to see what black women can do.

  • Zahra

    Loved this film! It was pure pleasure to watch, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw was amazing in the title role.

  • http://molecularshyness.wordpress.com jen*

    I loved this movie for all sorts of reasons. I loved the story with a happy ending – so many times it seems the tragic mulatto must remain as such. I loved that Dido is truly the center of the story. I LOVED the moment when she learned a little better how to handle her hair – that was particularly poignant for me. I loved the costumes, and wished that I could see Mbatha-Raw in a few more dresses.

    I didn’t love Felton. He has become typecast for me now. I don’t think I’ll be able to separate him from this role. And I didn’t love some of Dido’s hairstyles. Maybe they were period specific, but they felt deliberately unflattering at times.

    Overall, I’ve already asked for this movie for Christmas. So. I loved it. =)

  • http://www.winonainc.com/ Edwina@WINONA,INC.

    I thought it was both entertaining and educational. Two thumbs up!

  • de_Pizan

    I saw this last week and loved it. Although there was a little bit of the tired trope of the couple first hating each other (or maybe not hate, but dislike/irritation) that I could have done without. And I would have liked a little less focus on the romance in general, but those were minor quibbles.
    This is a nitpick, but I’ve seen the time period on the film referred to incorrectly by almost every single review about the film, even by professional film critics. The film is set in the 1780s, which is the Georgian period. It’s also frequently referred to as Jane Austen era, which isn’t correct either, as that was Regency (early 1800s). The Victorian period didn’t start until 1837, which was a few decades after the real Dido died.

  • Beth_in_Mpls

    Just saw this movie—really wonderful film. Mbatha-Raw was terrific. And I appreciate your digging out some of the facts about the historical figures behind the movie’s characters.

    By the way, you refer to this film’s “Victorian dating tropes” and compare it to “other Victorian films,” but that’s the wrong era for this story. It’s Georgian (named for the king at the time) or the Napoleonic Era in the wider European context. Queen Victoria did not take the throne until 1837.