Review: Belle

In honour of Black History month, I will be reviewing the film Belle which was recently released on DVD. It follows Dido Elizabeth Belle who was the daughter of Captain John Lindsay and Maria Belle, a slave, through the race, class and gender struggles in 18th century England at the time of the famous Zong case. The Zong was a slave ship, on which the slaves were murdered because it was claimed that the ship had run out of water and therefore to maintain the survival of the crew, the slaves had been thrown overboard. Upon their return, the ship owners tried to claim insurance; however the insurance companies refused to pay. However there was sufficient water on board the ship according to the inventory.
Little is known about Dido, the inspiration for the movie comes from a portrait of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth which used to hang at Kenwood House and now hangs at Scone Palace. The portrait depicts the two women in a relatively equal setting compared to other portraits around this time. Dido is not depicted in an inferior position and is looking straight ahead rather than looking adoringly at her white cousin. There is also a sign of affection between the cousins with Elizabeth’s hand on Dido’s arm. Amma Ashante, the director, was given a postcard of the portrait which inspired the film.
The film has been likened to adaptations of Jane Austen as it examines many similar issues such as women’s prospects and social class differences. Dido is hit with three situations holding her back: being mixed race, female and illegitimate. Her prospects are seen to be poor as marriage is required once her guardians have passed due to not being independently wealthy yet unlikely to be able to secure a ‘satisfactory’ marriage match due to the colour of her skin. The film examines the difficulties of the intersectionality that Dido would’ve faced like many women in 18th century England, something new in British film.
The film has been somewhat unfairly compared to Twelve Years a Slave, this year’s Oscar winner which also focuses on slavery. Some have complained that Belle in comparison is to ‘genteel’ and that after Twelve Years a Slave, audiences can cope with the violence and horror of slavery and racism. However I disagree, there is simply no need for unnecessary violence in a film such as Belle, it does not take place on the horrors of a plantation, it is in stately homes. There is no historical evidence and would make very little sense that Dido as a free woman in the norms of the upper classes would be treated physically in the same way as Northup was on a plantation. It would be gratuitous and unrealistic, the racism that Dido faced was a different kind. In some respects, some reviewers seem to feel perhaps more uncomfortable watching Belle than Twelve Years a Slave. While this may seem strange it is important to consider that some people may be able to pat themselves on the back thinking how much more progressive they are and how not racist they are, as they do not whip or enslave someone because of the colour of their skin.
However Belle represents a more subtle and generally less physical type of racism, a type of racism that viewers will either recognise or possibly have even participated in themselves. While Twelve Years a Slave made for uncomfortable viewing, viewers could possibly come out with a somewhat self-congratulatory smugness that at least they didn’t condone slavery. Belle on the other hand can make viewers uncomfortable in that many still in society act in the same way and hold not to dissimilar views; there is not the same ‘well at least I’m not like that’ aspect. It is why a film such as Belle is so important; not only does it illustrate how forgotten the mere presence of non-white people in Britain before the arrival of the Windrush in 1948 and how involved as a country we were in the slave trade, but also the uncomfortable reality that just because racism is not outright and physical that it still very present in society and is extremely damaging. Dido is arguably more identifiable to many people today.
Belle is a brilliant film with a superb cast and touching story. From a historian’s point of view the film is unique and fascinating, and well worth watching.

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