BACK IN THE day, when Hollywood was still struggling to get Black faces on the silver screen, Sidney Poitier became the white-acceptable face of the idea of the good Black man. In movies such as “Lilies of the Field”, “The Guest Who Came to Dinner” “To Sir With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night”, Sidney was the uber Black. And in a series of delightful movies, Poitier became the symbol of Black equality. His characters were not simply as bright, as cultured, as good as de White folk, but actually better. He was brighter, richer, more humane, more cultured, more forgiving and unencumbered by any trace of malice or rancour. Here were movies that had been crafted for the acceptance of a White audience, and which caught the zeitgeist of the long US march away from Jim Crowe to a Black, albeit hated, man in the White House.
And now along comes “Belle”, an entertainingly engaging, well crafted, well written, weep-inducing escapist fantasy that offers us an idea of England that is leavened by a strong sense of fair-play and tolerance; where racism can be spotted a mile away by mean, anti-social, money grubbing leeches, and where power was wielded by men of conscience and good character.
“Belle” is the story of the half-cast love-child of a British navy captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who brings her to be cared for by his uncle, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice, one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom (Tom Wilkinson). What the audience is not told is that Dido Elizabeth Belle was just one of three illegitimate children fathered by Sir John (who no doubt courted these –slave-women honorably and with proper British manners).
Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised to be a genteel, aristocratic lady (In the Poitier vein, she is prettier, more intelligent, and more accomplished than her peers and, despite being snubbed by her family at public social occasions, she is philosophically indignant, but unencumbered by rancor). As the movie would have it, she’s relegated to the sidelines purely during the consumption of meals when outsiders were in the house – and this was due entirely to the stringent conventions of the day that forbade good families having to dine, not with Black folks (no convention of the time would even have considered this) but with illegitimates. Fair-play England objected to her not so much because she was Black; it was, we are lead to believe, because she was illegitimate.
The reality is that she was treated shoddily by the family – above the invisible servants, but, as the person in charge of the household’s menial tasks, below the ‘real’ family. If in the movie, she was doubly free (from slavery and, as an heiress, from the need for money), in reality she was triply outcast – from others of her race, from equality within her family and without a real place in the social pecking order of the Empire.
But, hey, she was Black. On multiple occasions Dido refers to her blackness and Director Amma Asante is keen that we feel the pain of Dido’s racial angst; feel the agony and turmoil of what it must have been like to be in this gorgeous, refined, rich, desired woman’s shoes. She is, after all, courted, not for love, but for her money (a dimension that suits the movie’s theme of the dependency of women, but not really a reflection of any historical truth).
Life’s a bitch. Thank God, Dido is an independent-minded, proto-feminist.
But to be fair, for a man of Lord Mansfield’s status to have accepted a half-cast into his home, in a world as rigid and stratified as England was in the eighteenth century must have taken huge guts. One of the story lines in the movie revolves around a court case in which Lord Mansfield was engaged. It concerned the insurance claim of a salve ship, whose owners dumped their cargo (slaves), in order (they claim) to save their seamen from dying of thirst. As the story points out, the slave trade was the bedrock of London wealth at the time; to find against the claim could potentially threaten this wealth and wreck incalculable economic harm. How would Lord Mansfield, already ‘tainted’ by his relationship with a Black woman, rule?
Mansfield’s legal deliberations revolve finally around deliberations of his conscience. He must do what is both legally and morally right, and hang the consequences.
So too must Dido, a slave to the onerous demands of her society when a woman’s freedom to marry the husband of her choice was severely constrained; when both men and women could only know a semblance of independence if there was money at hand; and when social class was the only arbiter of career and companionship.
Notwithstanding the dodgy nature of the movie’s glossy version of race relations in London (we see a few other Black faces – as maids and nannies – but actually, as a port city, there were many Blacks in the city at the time; indeed about 3% of London’s inhabitants were (mainly free) Black), relative newcomer Amma Asante offers us a very confidently directed film.
She isn’t the only newcomer: This is writer Misan Sagay’s first major movie; and though Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been in countless TV dramas, this really is her big screen breakthrough. And what a breakthrough it is: she is a luminous, commanding presence. I suspect we’ll be hearing more of all three of these ‘new’ talents soon.
They’re surrounded by many familiar, always compellingly believable, faces: Tom Wilkinson, as Lord Mansfield, mixes stern gravitas with an avuncular warmth; his wife is the quietly compelling Emily Watson; and Tom Felton, cast as the face of British racism reprises his deliciously nasty character –Draco Malfoy- from the Harry Potter films.
So, in the end, this is an often dishonest movie that still manages to be an enormously satisfying evening out. The corny love story between Dido and aspiring gentleman, John Davinier (Australian Sam Reid) owes much to Jane Austen; and cinematographer Ben Smithard (“My Week With Marilyn”) bathes all the scenes with the genteel glow of a Watteau painting.
Take a handkerchief!