“Belle”: A Love Letter to Women of Color in Period Drama Format

13 mins read

Hello friends! Hope everyone had a relaxing break. Heading into finals, I’ve been rewatching a lot of comfort movies, which brings me to the movie I’m reviewing this week. I’m going to review “Belle,” a 2013 period drama based on the real life Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race noblewoman in 18th century England. I wanted to review this movie because for a movie that overperformed at the box office and that boasted a star-studded cast, it’s still relatively unknown. And that is unfortunate because “Belle” is a gem. Set primarily in the year 1781, “Belle” tells the story of the adopted daughter of the 1st Earl of Mansfield and how she navigated the brutal world of the English upper class with uncertain status. The film also tackles Lord Mansfield’s most famous case as Lord Chief Justice of England: a case that struck a significant blow to the British slave trade and would soon by followed by an outright abolition of slavery. “Belle” is written by Misan Sagay, directed by Amma Asante, and stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, and Emily Watson. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 and was released in the US in May 2014.

Dani’s Thoughts:

First, a little bit of history because it’s important for a better understanding of the movie. “Belle” is based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (portrayed in the film by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate and mixed race daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay (portrayed by Matthew Goode) and an enslaved woman Maria Belle, who was raised and educated by Captain Lindsay’s uncle, one of the most prominent peers of his age. (Though she is often referred to as Dido Belle in historical accounts, she took her father’s name and was referred to as Dido Lindsay by family). Her adoptive father, the 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England (portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) is most known for his ruling in Gregson v Gilbert, a case about the Zong massacre (the mass murder of 130 Black people aboard a British slave ship). His ruling did great damage to the British slave trade and was a catalyst for several major pieces of legislation in England in the 1780s. As for Dido herself, it is known from correspondence and old letters that she was raised alongside her white cousin, Elizabeth Murray (portrayed by Sarah Gadon), who was also entrusted to the care of Lord Mansfield. Dido was very close to Lord Mansfield and often took dictation for him and helped him with his notes, tasks which were often given to first sons and which show that she was educated to a high level and was regarded as an unmitigated member of Lord Mansfield’s family. She was made an heiress upon her father’s death and soon after married and had three children. A portrait of her and her cousin hung at Kenwood House where she was raised until 1922. It now hangs in Lord Mansfield’s birthplace in Scotland.

All right, let’s get into it.

My last review was about “Knives Out,” a movie which approached social critiques in a roundabout way. Unlike “Knives Out,” “Belle” storms headfirst into social commentary, but it easily navigates around the pitfalls that other movies about black people fell into in the early 2010s and late 2000s. “Belle” does not have graphic depictions of slavery, torture, or the Zong massacre, despite the fact that the legal case about the massacre is front and center in the movie. It could not be accused of being torture porn or gratuitously depicting cruelty. As the main character, Dido is not overshadowed by the other people in her story, even though some of them (Lord Mansfield, mainly) are considerably more well known as historical figures than her. The story is wholeheartedly hers and it is not one of being saved or uplifted by a white man. 

In an interview, Gugu Mbatha-Raw talked about how she was the only member of the primarily British cast who had never done a period film. In 2013, there were no such opportunities afforded to almost any actors of color. What struck me about “Belle” is that it is as much a classic love story (complete with a beautiful piano-heavy soundtrack, stunning costumes, and a breathtaking declaration of love) as it is a story about navigating blackness. The importance of seeing a black woman dressed in a corset and hoop skirt trading witticisms with her love interest cannot be understated, especially for young Black girls who love reading Jane Austen or would like to see themselves represented in a Pride and Prejudice-esque setting. 

It is also important to note that “Belle” was written and directed by two black women. According to director Amma Asante, the story is based on real accounts but most of the more fictionalized aspects are based on the emotions that Asante and writer Misan Sagay felt when they saw the portrait of Dido Belle on a postcard. Unlike most other paintings depicting black people in that time period in England, Dido is positioned on an equal plane with Elizabeth Murray, dressed in clothes of equal quality, and her eye-line is slightly higher than her cousin’s. Sagay and Asante treat the character of Dido with the utmost respect and it is incredibly refreshing. She is a black woman with agency, grace, and femininity, with a full and satisfying character arc. 

Dido’s relationship with Elizabeth Murray is a wonderful one which also deftly points out the differences between the experiences of Black and white women. Elizabeth, who has no inheritance, is pushed to marry quickly and well. Dido, on the other hand, who has wealth in her own right, is in her own words “forced to carry [her] own mother… as [her] shame.” I am relieved that in a heated argument in which Elizabeth blurts out that Dido is beneath her, she then shouts that the reason is because Dido is illegitimate. I don’t think a white male writer would have resisted the temptation to allow Elizabeth a racial slur in a moment of anger. But racism is doubly hurtful when it comes from family. Amma Asante avoided it.

Something else that really sets this movie apart is its wonderful script. Officially, Sagay is credited as “Belle’s” sole writer, but this was disputed, with almost the entire cast pointing out that the final script was almost entirely written by Asante. All that aside, it is genius. The main love interest, John Davinier (in the movie an abolitionist and aspiring lawyer) often waxes poetic on the evils of slavery, saying that “Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are the frameworks for crime.” His character is an excellent example of the female gaze, especially because his character is meant to be contrasted against the other men in Dido’s life who either view her as unloveable or as an “exotic” object. Davinier respects Dido’s intellect and her reflections on society. He is her friend before he falls in love with her. Furthermore, his commentary on slavery is not patronizing nor does it feel like pandering to an audience that wants to see progressivism. It’s just spot on. 

Though several other supporting characters also share some powerful moments of reflection, the most beautiful writing goes to the leading lady herself. She stands up for herself and her mother in the face of people who blatantly tell her that they wish to “overlook” the Black side of her family. She stands up to her adoptive father, who wants to shield her from the discomfort the world would put on her by telling him to do better and be braver. She falls in love on her own terms and in her own time. Dido’s lines burst with the determination of her character, who is trying to find herself in a world that does not want her. “I don’t feel that I find myself anywhere,” she tells Lord Mansfield right before he delivers his famous ruling. But in this story, she most certainly finds her voice.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the portrait on which “Belle” is based. It plays an important role in both the plot and the development of Dido’s and Lord Mansfield’s characters. Dido (and consequently the viewer) always pauses to notice the way that black people are depicted in art: always below their white counterparts, always with grotesquely exaggerated features, always looking up in awe at white men. When the time comes for her to be painted, she is hesitant. She does not want to be shown staring up at her cousin in subservience. But when the painting is revealed, her eyes are above her cousin’s and it is Elizabeth who is holding her hand, not the other way around. The portrait serves to highlight the uniqueness of the life that the real Dido Belle lived. “Belle” the movie gives the woman in the portrait a larger than life story. And it’s marvelous. If you haven’t watched it, go watch it.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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