movies you should watch: belle

So on Friday, I made a big deal about posting about Stuff I Like, and then I completely forgot about two of the things I was going to include!  Well, I’ll post one of them here, and then the other, I’ll be sure to include this Friday.  😀

Roommate and I both love period pieces.  Whether it’s swashbuckling adventures or biopics or love stories or comedies or Serious Movies About Serious Business, if it’s an interesting time period?  We’re willing to give it a try.  So when one of my coworkers told me about a movie she’d been wanting to see, Belle, the idea immediately appealed to both of us.

Movie poster for Belle (2014).

Movie poster for Belle (2014).

You may or may not know that Hollywood has a serious diversity problem.  If you’re not superfamiliar with the issues, Lee and Low Books had a great blog post about the Academy Awards and just how little progress has been made in showcasing the stories and skills of people of colour and, in the case of awards like Best Director, also women.  Belle looked to the Roommate and me like a step in a good direction.  Not only does it tell the story of a mixed-race woman in 18th-century England (a time and place often assumed to be lily-white, despite the fact that people of colour have existed in England, in various numbers, since Roman times), it was directed by Amma Asante, a British woman of Ghanian descent.  We wanted to vote in favour of a movie like Belle with our dollars, and also, we really wanted to see it, so we went last week, and it was amazing.

Belle is the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsey, a real woman of African and English descent who was acknowledged by her father as legitimate and raised in the upper class of England in the 1700s.  (Because her Papa is a ship’s captain, she’s brought up by an aunt and uncle, with a white cousin her age, and comes to think of them as mother, father, and sister.  There’s also her maiden aunt, played by Lady Isobel from Downton Abbey, who is a lot of fun in this film.)  Just because her family loves her, however, doesn’t mean that everyone else in high society accepts her so easily–and just because her family loves her doesn’t mean that they don’t do douchey things to “save face” around company, like make her eat by herself.  (She’s too highborn to eat with the servants, but her presence among strangers at a formal dinner is more than her uncle can justify.  Dido thinks this is bullshit, and she’s completely right.)

There are two main stories happening in Belle.  One is the story of how Dido comes into her own and learns to navigate society on her own terms–all of society, not just the upper crust–while trying to figure out whether she ought to follow her heart or her head in terms of romance.  Does she choose a man who’s “right” by societal terms, a man who is her social equal and seems to find her pleasant enough?  Or does she choose a man of lower birth, whose ideals match her own and who is her intellectual equal?  You can probably guess the answer, but knowing what’s probably going to transpire doesn’t change just how well her decision is played out; Dido’s journey towards marriage is genuinely romantic, and her sister-cousin’s own pursuits are often as funny as anything Jane Austen came up with.

The second story, which is intimately tied up with the first one, is that of the Zong, a slave ship embroiled in a legal suit which Dido’s uncle is expected to decide.  (This happened in real life, too!  I mean, obviously the Zong stuff did, but it really was Dido’s uncle who presided over the case; that wasn’t just some cut-and-paste history for theme’s sake.)  His decision on the matter will say something more than just “was the Zong in the right?”, as far as everyone around him is concerned.  It’ll be an endorsement of or a detraction against slavery, then legal in Great Britain and an issue of serious debate.  Of course, Dido’s uncle is devoted to the law.  He wants his decision to be based on pure rationality of legal versus illegal, not on opinion, and the weight of the decision is clearly heavy on his shoulders.  Inevitably, Dido becomes entangled in the case, but it isn’t merely because of the colour of her skin–she chooses to educate herself on the subject, against her uncle’s will, and makes some hard decisions of her own about the value of truth over politics.

Amma Asante, director of Belle.

Amma Asante, director of Belle.

There’s more going on as well, but I’m just going to mention one other important thing.  The movie addresses the images of black people within 18th-century culture really well, focusing on the way Dido is surrounded by paintings of heroic whites and subservient blacks.  If she’s to believe what she sees, starting as a child and continuing through her life, people who look like her exist not for themselves but for the people who give them orders–who, at this point in time, literally own their bodies.  This theme culminates in a painting that challenges that status quo, and it’s superneat.

As you can imagine, Belle has a lot of plates to keep spinning, and it succeeds marvelously–in great part because Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Dido, is a great actress.  I’m going to keep an eye out for her in the future, because I really liked her here.  This is a fantastic film, one I hope everyone will go out and see.  Because it’s also rated PG, I’m hoping it’s one that will have a long life within the middle- or high-school classroom.  There’s plenty to discuss related to this movie within a history class, and it is completely appropriate for the setting.

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