I don’t remember how I first heard about this movie, but it’s been popping up all over Tumblr with greater frequency. You might wonder why that’s been happening. Let me tell you about this movie, why it’s awesome, and why it’s so important.
Belle is a film based on the very real life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and a slave he’d found aboard a Spanish ship. In the film, a young Dido (Lauren Julien-Box) is claimed by her father (Matthew Goode) and taken to live at Kenwood House to be raised by his family. He insists that they love her and treat her as he would if he was able to stay. In tears, he tells her that he loves her and to never forget that she is loved.
I may have gotten misty-eyed there. It wasn’t the last time the movie brought tears to my eyes. This was all in the first few minutes of the film.
Though initially reticent, the family grows to love her and raises alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Cara Jenkins) under the watchful eyes of Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson respectively) and Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton). Time passes and the girls grow into young womanhood, as close as sisters.
After her father’s untimely death, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is left with enough money to be considered an heiress. That would be great news for any young woman, but Dido lives in an awkward sort of limbo. This is a theme throughout the film. Just where does she stand when the color of her skin renders her unable to be treated as a normal woman of rank but her higher birth sets her above the servant class? Then again, there is the matter of her illegitimate birth which also makes her status slightly murky.
One of the things that the movie does so well is show her inner conflict. The film spends a few minutes showing us what the world looks like through eyes when all of the images she sees of those with whom she shares a skin color show them in a subservient position. We understand why she doesn’t want to be painted alongside her beloved cousin (Sarah Gadon) even if no one else does. Gugu Mbatha-Raw does such a brilliant job of blending her character’s inner pain with indignation at the injustices and inconsistencies of the world.
As this is a period movie like any other, Dido is presented with a romantic dilemma and must chose between two suitors. One is Oliver Ashford (James Norton),the second son from a good family and the other is John Davinier (Sam Reid), a vicar’s son with a passionate desire to go into law. I’m not going to spoil the plot by telling you who she chooses (though if you looked at her Wikipedia page that I linked, you already know the answer), but I am going to tell you that the reasons behind her choice and the words she chooses to explain herself are so perfect and also depressingly relevant even today.
The movie is full of fantastic performances from its entire cast including Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford and Tom Felton as James Ashford, Oliver’s older brother. The script by Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante (there is some controversy about the script’s authoring) managed to convey the appropriate level of drama without being overwrought. The film was also beautifully shot and scored by cinematographer Ben Smithard and composer Rachel Portman.
All right. Now that I’ve covered the cinematic awesomeness of this movie, let’s talk about the thematic awesomeness. This movie covers not only the internal dilemma of someone of mixed heritage trying to find her place in a society that clings to very binary sensibilities. Things are either black or white, for lack of a better term. It also deals with the way race is treated by people at large. Another huge part it tackles is the earlier parts of the British abolition movement.
The best thing about this, and the most important thing, is that this movie is about how Dido is loved. That was very important for the director to show and it’s very important for audiences to see. We need to see women being loved. We particularly need to see women of color being loved. Audiences have become distressingly familiar with seeing women and people of color as victims on the big screen. In Belle, we get to see Dido shine and discover her true worth. These are the kinds of stories that should be told more frequently.
Please, do yourself a favor and go see Belle. It’s well worth the effort of finding a theater that’s playing it. Show Hollywood with your money that stories like Belle are stories worth telling. With luck, maybe we’ll see more of these stories coming to theaters in the future. I know I’m not alone in my desire for that future to come to pass.