So, before I get started, here's a review of Belle
that I don't like or agree with much:"In 'Belle,' a complex life tangled in class and commerce" http://www.npr.org/2014/05/02/308733902/in-belle-a-complex-life-tangled-in-class-and-commerce
If you like Jane Austen film adaptations and/or period drama more generally, I think you should go out and see Belle
if it's playing near you. And obviously I can't tell anyone what to do, but if this is the kind of thing that interests you, then I think it's worth going out to see it in the theater if that is within your means - voting with your wallet and all that - rather than waiting to catch it on DVD or Netflix. Personally, having done it yesterday*, I think it was very much worth the money, and also, Gugu Mbatha-Raw has the kind of vividly expressive face that is just made for closeups. I thought the whole thing was moving and immersive, with a script that was spare but still containing a real sense of eighteenth-century cadence, and Gugu did a fabulous job.
*I got home yesterday at about ten minutes to six, took my shoes off, ate a spoonful of peanut butter and two dried apricots while I tried to figure out what I was going to make for dinner - and then abruptly remembered that Belle
was opening at my local cinema that day. It turned out that there was a 7:05 screening, so I ran back out to catch it. Happily, the theater was mostly full by the time the movie started.
As I sat there waiting for the movie to start, I amused myself by trying to imagine the kinds of ways that people might discount this movie. It was going to be "too much like other period pieces," I imagined, too much like Jane Austen, not big or significant enough to be a worthy film. And sure enough, check out the end of this review:
While the basic outline of Belle's story is real, the filmmakers have invented freely within that outline, and most of what they've invented has the themes and tone of vintage Jane Austen — dowries, deceptions, suitors only some of whom are suitable. This has the effect of making the film feel elegant but a little weightless despite the weighty matters at its center.
Still, it's smartly acted, handsome and well-crafted in a way that'll make it irresistible to the Merchant-Ivory/Masterpiece Theater set — think pride, with a whole lot of prejudice.
Got it in one, guys. (This is literally the first review of the film that I pulled up.) Because you can't tell a story about slavery without showing whips and chains and suffering black bodies; because a film set in drawing rooms can't ever matter as much as one out on the open seas; because apparently the fact that women of color rarely if ever get
to be the heroine of Austen-style period dramas has totally escaped this reviewer's notice. (This was in fact the director's point
, but whatever.) Because everyone knows there's only one way to talk about race in the movies, and race is always the only
thing that could matter to characters of color: how could Dido (the way "Belle" is referred to in the film) be concerned with…finding a husband
? That paltry subject? How could she want to find the personal happiness that everyone else might want when there is slavery
on the line???
[Here is an interview with the director, Amma Asante, that is *not* tone-deaf and infuriating:http://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2014/05/09/amma-asante-tells-the-story-of-a-biracial-woman-finding-her-place-in-the-world-in-belle/
“I wanted to ask the question, ‘Who defines us — society or ourselves?’ ” Asante says. “If society simply sees her as the child of a slave but she feels like the child of an aristocrat, what is the most important predictor of her success?”
I also probably shouldn't be as annoyed as I am about the fact that this review calls Dido a "slave girl" raised in an aristocratic family when the movie tells us in, like, minute two that Dido was born on British soil - and hence not a slave
, ever - but I AM, anyway. It's like the desire to fit this movie into the particular expected boxes turned the reviewer selectively deaf. This movie is *so* much about class and status as well, not just about race - it's almost like intersectionality is an actual thing
, you guys! One of the major points of the movie - I don't think this was true in actual fact - is that Dido is able to inherit 2000 pounds a year from her father after his death, because he acknowledged her while he was alive, whereas her white cousin was penniless - and that meant that in that ruthless marriage market of the eighteenth century, there were people who would see Dido as the catch, even if they felt they had to "overlook" her color; this is a plot point as well. Dido's great-uncle/adopted father (Lord Mansfield, played by that period-drama stalwart Tom Wilkinson) is terribly angry when his new law student tells Dido about the slavery-ship case that he's struggling with, because as far as he is concerned, slavery should never have to matter to her: she is a Murray
, and you are the son of a vicar
, how dare you even speak to her! (This is, of course, naive and infantilizing; but the point is that for Lord Mansfield, Dido's color is really not the salient fact in some ways, though of course not all. And the Black servant Mabel highlights this point: she's a servant (not a slave; Dido asks pointed questions about this when they go to the house in London), not because of her color, but because in the 18th-century English aristocratic mind, some people are servants and some people are lords - they have plenty of white servants as well. But it's like there's so little frame of reference for this reviewer to imagine a Black character in a pre-1900 period film who is *not* a slave that this just passed him by.
And I do think that this attitude has ramifications beyond this one film - because there are certain kinds of Black experiences that are considered "authentic," and some that are not, regardless of whether there are actual people who live them (someone on TV - et tu, PBS! - called The Cosby Show
less "authentic" than Good Times
in a documentary just the other day); because people still think there were basically no Black people in the UK before the 1950s (guess who's still mad at Downton Abbey
a Black character from the US instead of challenging that view and finding a character from right there at home? Go on, guess
). Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. (To say nothing of the continued stupidity of claiming that the concerns that governed women's lives in the past are weightless
. How dare you.)
Anyway, you should go see Belle
, because Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a delight, and it's got lovely costumes, and it's romantic (because yes, figuring out whom you are going to spend the rest of your life with is a pretty big deal
when you can't get a divorce and can't own your own money because you're a gentlewoman and so can't have a job; and even if that weren't the case, people have relationships
and therefore stories about those relationships are important
), and I cried a bunch of times, and maybe if enough people go see this movie, maybe someday I will get my Benjamin Banneker biopic, or - no disrespect to 12 Years a Slave
or the real lives that inspired it - at least some other pre-1900 period drama that isn't about a slave, because I still think it's totally fishy that Hollywood overlooks the many people of color, even in slave-holding societies, who lived in the past and weren't slaves.