I just saw “Belle.” It is so good. I have no time to blog right now, but I’ve got to tell you how extraordinary this film is.
I’m going to list the reasons, and hopefully, I’ll have time to come back later and tell you more. It’s remarkable I saw this movie today because I just blogged about the talk where feminist scholar bell hooks said she was sick of seeing black women being raped on screen, how she was willing to see more films about slavery, but it had to be a different take than black woman as victim. At the same talk, flimmaker Shola Lynch said she wanted images that fed her. Watching “Belle” is like satisfying a craving I’ve had for my whole life. The narrative turns many stereotypes on their heads, and that is beautiful to see.
#1 Black female protagonist
Dido Belle is the star of this movie. I’m going to call her Dido from now on because that’s how she’s referred to in the film. I’m guessing “Belle” made a better title. How many films have we all seen where the black girl is the BFF of the white girl? In this movie, the blonde, blue-eyed cousin has the supporting role. Dido is the hero of this movie, she is the one with alll the screen time, who makes choices, takes risks, and goes through a transition.
#2 Female cousins are not cardboard opposites or rivals
One cousin is black, the other white but both girls are both smart, compassionate, and beautiful, there is not an “attractive” one and a “smart” one. They are complex. And, get this, are you sitting down? They are friends. They love each other. There is complexity and also conflict but not in a cookie cutter way.
#3 Class, race, and gender are all addressed brilliantly
This is the first film I’ve seen that addresses intersectionality like this. There are so many great lines and plot points that show the complexity of these issues. I’ll list a few. Dido is the daughter of a an English aristocrat and a slave. When Dido’s mother dies, her father comes to take her to his estate. A captain of the English navy, he leaves Dido with his uncle, the most powerful judge in England. Dido’s father can’t return because he is following the king’s orders, and he dies. This all happens in the first 10 minutes of the movie. The captain leaves Dido his money, 2000 pounds a year. So Dido is a rich woman, an heiress.
Dido’s white cousin gets no money from her family because her father is a “scoundrel” who, after her mother died, married another woman. All his money is going to his new family. The cousin must marry wealth, she has no income of her own and British law forbids inheriting from her grandfather because– do you watch Downton Abbey– she’s female.
So great lines ensue when the cousin says to Dido, this is not an exact quote “I envy you, you are free. I must marry money, and I’m forbidden from making any on my own. I am my future husband’s property.”
That line is there to remind the audience that women were slaves. Women’s bodies belonged to men. Women were not allowed to have their own income. I’ve had so many debates with people, and I have since high school, where I’m told “Women were never slaves.” Huh? Not only are women descended from slaves fairly recently in human history– think about laws about property, income, the vote which in the USA we’ve only had for 94 years– but in much of the world in 2014 women are still slaves.
There are more great plot points. The cousins get in an argument and the white one calls the black one illegitimate. Dido says, “My father loved me. You are the one who was abandoned by your father and that is why you are in the financial state you are in.” It’s clear the cousin agrees, she’s the “illegitimate” one.
#4 Role of art in passing down narrative
There are many points in the movie where paintings are shown. When Dido first goes to the estate, as a little girl, she looks at a painting of her grandafther with a black boy servant/ slave.
At another point, Dido sees a painting of a slave bowing down worshipfully to a white man and remarks how paintings are like reality.
The movie makes clear how we are all affected and influenced by the “media” of the day, at that time, black people shown in repetitive images as inferior to whites.
In contrast, Dido and her cousin are painted together as equals. In the movie, they are the same size, right next to each other. In this painting, the real one, the white girl is more prominent, but it was radical at the time. I am glad in the actual movie both figures are the same prominence. The painting is commissioned by the uncle and at the end of the movie, whe nthey show the real painting. I cried. I didn’t know it existed.
Art creates reality and reality creates art. I love how “Belle” makes this truth a central theme of the movie.
I’ve got to research this movie, but I’m curious what role that painting had in inspiring the fillmmaker and keeping Dido’s story alive.
#5 Role of capitalism is race/ gender/ class
The movie addresses how the slave trade was crucial to the British economy. That is the reason so many people supported slavery. This brings to light how entrenched industries are today in our culture– the billion dollar beauty business for one– and how people benefit financially on all kinds of levels by maintaining inequality.
#6 Great roles for FIVE women in this movie!
There are many strong female characters. All the acting is great– Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson are in the movie. (Tom Wilkinson is amazing, as always, playing the uncle.)
“Belle” is loved and adored by a man for her brilliance and strength. There is no sex and one kiss but you feel the heat between the characters, rare indeed. In fact, this movie is so sqeaky clean, I wonder if the director and producers etc wanted parents to feel comfortable bringing their children to it. It’s not a “children’s movie” but I think it’s a great one for kids to see. I’m going to take my 10 year old daughter. As I just wrote, there is no sex/ nudity, and I would take my 8 year old to see it as well, except that you need to understand sex/ reproduction to get the whole white blood/ black blood legal issue. I have not had “the talk” with my 8 year old yet, so I’m not going to bring her.
Also, in order to understand the movie, your child will need to understand the concept of insurance. The central debate of the narrative is that a slave trade boat threw its “cargo” overboard because there was a lack of water and they were going to die anyway. The insurance company argues it doesn’t have to pay because the “cargo” could have been saved, that diseased slaves were thrown overboard because the insurance was worth more than the humans.
With those caveats (if they know about sex and if they can understand the basic concept of insurance) I’m recommending “Belle” for kids 8 years old and up.
Reel Girl rates “Belle” ***HHH***
Update: “Belle” was inspired by the painting. From SFGate:
The screenwriter has said that “Belle” was initially inspired by her seeing the painting of Dido and Elizabeth at Scone Palace in Scotland. The painting, worth seeking out online, gets more beautiful the more you look at it. In the ease of their postures and the warm and confident expressions of their faces, one can see that those young women knew something – their own worth and each other’s.
Screenwriter Misan Sagay
Director Amma Asante
While she was an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in the 1990s, Misan Sagay visited the nearby Scone Palace, where a rare double portrait caught her eye. Painted in the Gainsborough style of aristocratic figures in an Arcadian landscape, the canvas showed two young women swathed in lustrous satin, gleaming pearls circling their swan necks. The vivacious one on the left is biracial; her unhurried companion is white.
Ms. Sagay, who is Anglo-Nigerian, studied the wall label. It read: “Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray, circa 1778.”
Naturally, Ms. Sagay was curious. What of the woman on the left, whose forearm Elizabeth clasps so fondly?
In 2009 Amma Asante, a British-born filmmaker of Ghanaian parentage, received a screenplay written by Ms. Sagay. Attached was a postcard reproduction of the painting. Even before reading the script, Ms. Asante recalled, “I was inspired by the image.” She said that in European paintings of the late 18th century, blacks were often depicted as lower-class figures to affirm the higher status of the white subject. “I knew how unique it was,” she said, “that the black woman was not looking with adoration at the white woman, and that the white woman was tenderly touching her companion.”
Did you see that line? “I was inspired by the image.”
How many different stories and movies and television shows and apps do you think we’d have in 2014 if we weren’t surrounded by thousands of years of paintings by white men of naked women?