Next week the independent film Belle will hit theatres in the USA. I had the privilege of seeing the film in February at the Athena Film Festival in NYC.
Belle is an historical drama based on the real life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-raced British aristocrat who lived the late 1700s. Dido was the child of an enslaved African woman and an admiral in the British navy; the two likely encountered each other in the West Indies. Her mother is believed to have died when Dido was very young and her father sent her to be raised by his uncle, an Earl and Chief Justice, in England where she was raised as a gentlewoman along with her white cousin Elizabeth. The film was inspired by the painting the Earl had commissioned of his two nieces in 1779 and which still exists to this day.
The film examines what Dido’s life may have been like given the real people she would have encountered in her life as well as the historical events that impacted her and her family. Portrayed by the young British actress Gugu Mbatha-Ra, the film allows us to begin to understand the complex intersections of race, gender, and class that Dido had to negotiate, and to honor the courage and strength of Dido and her family in making the choices (large and small) that they did and the impact those choice can have.
Watch the trailer here:
When speaking after the film screening at the Athena Film Festival, director Amma Asante expanded on the goal of the film besides just bringing the story
of this woman to life and adding her story to our understanding of history and black women’s history. She explained that in making this film she was also experimenting to see if it was possible to make a period ‘Jane Austen-type’ film— such a staple of British cinema— that had a black lead. Would it work? Would the genre be flexible enough? Would audiences accept it?
I think the answer is an obvious ‘Yes!’ I greatly enjoyed the film, and found its characters, conflicts, and themes just as engrossing as any other costume drama or quiet, Austen-type film. I am excited to see an example of the industry expanding it’s understanding of what roles actresses of color can play AND giving them the opportunity. I also think this film gives audiences a comfortable and engaging avenue through which to learn about a fascinating event in history (the Zong Massacre and the following legal case) that set Western society on a path to ending the slavery of African and black people; as well as a comfortable and engaging avenue through which to understand the role of women in that history and the time period in general.
In terms of tone, this film reminded me a lot of the film Amazing Grace although the romantic and relational storylines played a more prominent role in Belle. But again where as Amazing Grace featured a white, male lead, it is emphatically important that Belle has instead a black, female protagonist— and even more powerfully, this female protagonist also truly existed and is truly a part of our history.
I think it is so important to contemplate that this woman really did live this extraordinary life, did challenge the society and values that are a part of who we are historically, and and did accomplish the things she did. By reviving and telling her story, we diversify the narratives told about women in history and black women in history. I think this widens our understanding of what was possible for women in the past, and thereby what is possible for women now and in the future. I think a lot of people have this understanding of the women in history (especially women before the ~1950s)— the women we come from— as existing in these lives of indefatigable oppression, disempowerment, and abuse, waiting to be liberated by the progress that would happen in the twentieth century. But as we begin to tell the stories of women like Dido, we realize that, despite the odds and forces against them, there were vibrant, intelligent, complex women doing many things, leading many lives. These women were literally accomplishing amazing and admirable things, winning battles large and small in the fight to expand mankind’s understanding of equality, identity, and humanity.
What incredible hope and sense of possibility this give us as women, men, and people of all colors in the present today! As Geena Davis says: If we can see it, we can be it.
And to quote one of the speakers from the Athena Film Festival: “When you watch 35 films and panels with women in strong, leadership roles, you get a different picture of the world.”
I encourage everyone to watch Belle whether for pure entertainment or for a learning experience. You will get both. It opens May 2nd, and Fox Searchlight has put together a list of the theatres that will be showing the film where and when.
And P.S. If you can, watch it with a group of feminists as I did, because they will give the characters snaps when they are particularly brave or inspiring!