Films about black women, even when based on the original works written or created by black women, are often helmed by male filmmakers once they reach the highest form of flattery, the visual adaptation. As Tyler Perry and Steven Spielberg translated For Colored Girls and The Color Purple to the big screen, back in 1991, Julie Dash’s independent film Daughters of the Dust was a watershed moment for women of color behind the scenes. Since Dash’s tribute to black matriarchy, female successors of her blueprint remained low on the radar, but it’s not to say strides weren’t made. As a kind of anti-blaxploitation movement began in the mid-90s after the wave of gangsta-reality films like Boyz N the Hood and Menance II Society, acclimatized for the modern ethnic audience, some of the most popular black films were still directed and/or written by men (Soul Food, Brown Sugar, Love Jones), but ew films about life and love through the black woman experience did reach that treasured cult-fan status including Gina Prince-Bythewood’s beloved debut Love & Basketball and Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou.
As we continue to revel in the reign of Lupita Nyong’o after her heartbreaking Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave and in being crowned Hollywood’s Great Diverse Hope, comes the British film Belle, an anomaly when it comes to stories, past and present, centered on black people, women, and historical references. An ambitious project and one that could’ve only been done through passion for its undying homage to love and courage, Belle is based on the true life of the bi-racial heiress Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay.
Categorized as an “illegitimate” child due to her controversial birth of being the daughter of the Caucasian Englishman Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an African slave woman Maria Belle, the film begins with the Admiral bravely pleading to his great uncle William Murray (the 1st Earl of Mansfield) to raise Dido amongst her cousin Elizabeth and their aristocratic setting. Immediately Belle translates as remarkable for 21st century viewers. Here, a white man of a certain status (played wonderfully by Matthew Goode in a cameo) claims his black daughter as his own and there is isn’t an ounce of shame exhibited in having fell in love with a black woman and in producing a child in the process. For so long through recorded history and media re-tellings, the modernized viewer has only heard or read about the brutal tales of how of these “illegitimate” children were often abandoned by one of their parents, whether it be their white father or black father, leaving a mixed-blood child feeling unwanted, out of place, or unloved. Sir Lindsay’s sensitivity to Dido sets the tone for the film and her sense of self-love even when she feel’s most dispirited.
During the Harlem Renaissance in a number of novels, the bi-racial experience was a pivotal attribute in some of the movement’s most accomplished works, which definitely included the act of passing (living life as a “white” person) and was a topic close to home for the author Nella Larsen, as it was the main topic of her brilliant novels Passing and Quicksand.
In watching Belle, it really is surprising that so little of Dido was not known beforehand. She is absent from textbooks, and if not for the 1799 oil painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth (that currently hangs in Scotland), her legacy might’ve been all together forgotten. Thankfully, due to the curiosity of filmmaker Amma Asante, Asante fought to get her story told through the small batch of evidence from the Earl of Mansfield’s writings, and even did so through the talented backbone of her fellow female filmmakers in the British movie business.
As a film, Belle is so eloquent, distinctive, and laced with romance, even with its typical reality checks of racism spewed from those who were fearful of the presence of a Dido ( especially one treated nearly as delicate as any white princess) it feels like a fairy tale, and it’s a fairy tale that stars a heroine that reflects the other side of womanhood. There is so much to appreciate and swoon about Belle, while its interconnected points of racism, abolition, love, inheritance, and progression do not get lost along the way. The decor and costumes replicate 18th century England flawlessly, the dialogue is healthily sprinkled with feminist roars, and the acting feels organically top-notch. The lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a candescent choice who herself is of a bi-racial background and she shares the screen with veterans Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, and then there’s Sarah Gadon (as cousin Lady Elizabeth), Sam Reid and Tom Felton. As actors, they were emotionally rooted in expressing the bigger picture of how a community’s effort to allow change to occur was a burden of various reasons depending on the individual. Each actor also dabbed a little bit of humor in their roles. Belle is subtly and emotionally electric. There are also many great lines, often spoken by the actresses that are very caption-worthy. The comments range from racism but also sexism, as Dido retorts to John Davinier (Reid) in a minor spat (the following quote is partially paraphrased): “How can one [define] the ways of a woman when he was yet to know the ways of a gentleman”. #BOOM
Critics are labelling Belle as a kind of black Jane Austen for a new generation. For years, pieces like Little Woman and Pride and Prejudice were landmarks of women fighting the good fight of amalgamating life and love, but Belle is the first of this kind to feature a brown-skinned face.
A touching moment of the film comes after the Lord and his family travel to the city so the girls, and especially Lady Elizabeth, can find future husbands. While staying at one of their estates, there is a black female maid as the housekeeper. As Elizabeth and Dido get ready for bed, Dido tries to comb her massively curly hair, as it’s also the first time as viewers you’ll see it worn out. The kind housekeeper asks if Dido would like some help, but once again, she is feeling low and unsure of everything in her life. She doesn’t respond and just sits on the edge of her bed super conflicted. The scene cuts to the housekeeper combing Dido’s hair in front of the mirror as she’s telling her to start at the ends. While a curious Elizabeth watches behind the maid, Dido and the housekeeper share a moment and a smile of black sisterhood. While it would’ve been easy for Dido to resist the help or the housekeeper to not bother at all, it is one of Belle’s best scenes. Dido never denies or feels the need to belittle her black side, but she also doesn’t often get the opportunity to interact with a lot of other black people, so the scene was imperative to Dido’s growth and acceptance as a bi-racial woman, which harkens to her father loving her as she was in the beginning. In embracing her background and in rejecting racist behavior whenever in her presence or as much as she can, this is also done in honor of her deceased mother. Dido’s confidence is illuminated through the kind gesture of a fellow black woman that in a way is letting her know she is not alone.
New York Magazine’s Vulture critic, Bilge Ebiri, described Belle as “profoundly human”, and while the world’s history has more hate and disappointment than we’ll like to acknowledge, Belle is a reminder that they were people out there trying to do the right thing. It is heavy on the romance, and again, it does feel like a fairy tale created for the ages, after the harsh 12 Years of Slave, and the mocking of slavery from Django Unchained, Belle is a refreshing addition to the slave narrative, the discussion of feminism, and black womanhood that a 2014 audience needs to be reminded of.