Alright alright alright, I know I’m late on other stuff that you are way more interested in than not-another-british-period-drama. I know I owe you two Game Of Thrones recap and an X-Men review. Deal with it. I’ve decided that this movie is important to me and I am going to try to make it important for you as well.
Today, we’re going to talk about romance and feminism, which happen to be two of my favourite subjects. We’re going to talk about being a mixed woman at the time of fancy dresses as well as nowadays. Today, my friends, we’re going to be a tad political and very, very personal.
This is Belle. Mostly spoiler free.
I am not a known romantic movies enthusiast. I particularly despise romantic comedies, this because they reinforce clichés on men and women, present really twisted ideas about relationships and are not very well written to begin with. The conflict is in general based on some sort of misunderstanding that only exists because of course, in romantic comedies, people don’t communicate with each other and everybody knows that’s a great way to start a relationship. There are a few exceptions to the rule but you get the idea. I do not enjoy romantic comedies. I do, however, love my romantic dramas.
Romantic dramas, particularly period pieces like Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess, or Belle, have my preference for a number of reasons. First of all, posh accents, horses, and fancy dresses. Second of all, they tend to have some kind of real conflict going on, because marriages back then were an affair of politics or money. Being a woman back then was considerably harder than being a woman today and being in love was considered a child’s foolish dream. The movie I’m reviewing today has this and so much more to offer.
Belle is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed child of an English officer and a slave, brought up in the house of an English lord as a freed woman. In real life, very little is known about Dido’s life, except from the fact that she had a peculiar status in the Mansfield house. Lord Mansfield, the man who raised her, is well-known for serving the cause of the abolitionists at the time. Dido married a Frenchman, had two kids and that’s about it. The writers of the movie did something very clever, though. They looked at the little material they had and thought “Hey, you know what? We can make this truly great.” Before you say anything, yes, some facts were slightly modified, mostly because a lot of characters were added or considerably more developed. They also chose to really center the story around Dido. And those decisions were good ones.
The story begins when Admiral Sir John Lindsay takes his illegitimate daughter to his uncle’s family but most of the film takes place when Dido reaches adulthood, or at least the age when girls at the time started to “come out” and search for a husband. While her cousin Elizabeth has to deal with being a penniless girl in the English nobility, Dido has to face the consequences of being a woman of colour as well as an heiress. High born enough to be educated and too dark to be fully part of the high society, Dido quickly becomes painfully conscious of the condition of both women and african slaves and questions her own status in life. Her family presents her cousin Elizabeth to all promising noble young men around while Dido, despite her fierce intelligence and overall talent for all things, is set aside. In parallel, Dido follows the case of the Zong, a slave ship in trial with its insurance company over the killing of a whole cargo of african slaves. Lord Mansfield, as Chief Justice, is in charge of the case and it is quite clear that his judgment, whatever it is, is going to be a milestone in the colonial history of the British Empire. The aspiring lawyer John Davinier, a pupil of Lord Mansfield, hopes that it will serve the cause of the abolitionists. As a minor but meaningful side story, we also learn that Lord Mansfield has decided to order a portrait of both Dido and Elizabeth.
So there it is. One plot line for the cause of women and one for the cause of the people of colour, both centered around the remarkable protagonist that is Dido. The movie guides you inside her world and inside her head, showing you the conflict between her rank and her skin colour, a conflict that she has to face every day. Dido, like every mixed person, is stuck halfway between two worlds. She has to endure the endless critical looks of the English nobility and she also has to listen to people praise one part of her blood and dismiss the other, when they don’t simply look at her like some kind of exotic amusement. Although kept away from political matters, Dido rebels against her adoptive father and the order of things that he represents and is hungry for both love and justice. The movie is carried, sometimes a little bit too much, by Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s expressive eyes and the constant conflict that inhabits her character. It is clever, well written, passionate, and yes, it is political. It also helps a lot that the director and main writer of the movie is a black woman. When people know what they’re talking about, it shows.
Belle did not only touch me because it is an all-around well executed period drama. Belle touched me because the story it tells is, well, my story. The stories of mixed people, especially mixed women, are still way too rare in mainstream media. I can only talk as a woman born of a white man and a black woman but I am sure that every person born between two worlds will be able to relate to some degree. I identified with Dido because she looked at her hands and her face, wondering if there was something wrong with her skin. I identified with her because she wasn’t quite sure what her place in the world was supposed to be and because I know how much it goddamn hurts to hear somebody tell you that you have “a better half” while talking about your origins. I grew up in that kind of atmosphere. My parents were happy of their union, of course. The rest of society? Not so much. I know what it feels like to be considered like a privileged prude by one side and like an amusing rare bird by the other. This movie is important because girls of colour out there need to see that people like them have stories worth sharing. They need to see that they have a right to exist and that they are not alone.
Belle is for everybody to see. It’s for people of colour, white people, women, and men. It is the universal story of fighting for what is right and yes, it is also a romance and Dido earns her happy ending. It may seem a bit too dramatic at times, it may seem like what happens in it is no big deal but I invite you all to give it a try. Maybe you’ll admire the strength of the main character. Maybe you’ll just like the fancy dresses and the posh accents. Maybe you will feel offended or bored or maybe you just won’t care. It doesn’t matter. Watch it. It is important.