Belle Offers Social Commentary on the -Isms, Gugu Mbatha-Raw Shines

 

After weeks of anticipation, I finally saw Belle, the critically acclaimed film starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson and Tom Felton. The film centered on Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, a young biracial woman that was raised as an aristocrat by her uncle and aunt in 18th century England. I was excited about this film because in addition to having a Black female lead, it was written and directed by Black women. Although I like to turn off my analytical lenses when I consume media, Belle refused to allow me to do so because of its masterful use of cinema to address issues of racism, sexism, classism and how those issues can intersect.

Lead star Gugu Mbatha-Raw with director Amma Asante

Despite being a woman of color and born out-of-wedlock, her father, who perished soon after bringing her to her aunt and uncle, left her his fortune. Now an heiress, she was afforded privileges that were inaccessible to Black people and women in that era. Dido herself even noted that she was afforded freedom twice as “a woman and a Negro.” She would never know the horrors of slavery firsthand or the indignity of being an indentured servant and consequently, she was naïve about a lot of the realities of race. Dido didn’t know much about the realities of slavery until another character informed her (more on that later) and her uncle’s insistence on keeping her innocent did not help matters. She couldn’t even properly comb her curly hair until a Black servant taught her how. Still, that naiveté didn’t shield Dido from experiencing racism.  The minds behind Belle were masterful when it came to showing how the privileged Dido couldn’t escape the sting of racism. Rather than relying on the mutilation of Black bodies via slavery tragedy porn, these film makers relied on a more subtle approach. One central theme was the use of paintings depicting subservient slaves next to upright white elites to highlight Dido’s own securities. Dido had to sit for a portrait with her cousin Elizabeth and worried that the image would relegate her to the status of a servant because of past and current experiences. For instance, Dido and Elizabeth were raised as sisters, but only the former could eat with the family when company was over because guests might be uncomfortable with Dido’s presence. Additionally, while both girls were being courted for marriage, Dido’s race made her unfit to some suitors, including Tom Felton’s character who referred to her as “repulsive.” In contrast, the character’s brother viewed Dido as a suitable wife and at one point, told her that she was lucky that her good side, meaning her whiteness, gave her access to so many things. These examples are just a few of many.

The actual portrait of Dido Belle Lindsay

Dido wasn’t the only living example of intersectionality in the film. Elizabeth also experienced some harsh realities. She was raised in the same household with Dido but she didn’t have a rich daddy to leave her some money. In order for Elizabeth to have financial security, she had to get married, just like almost every other woman in that time. Her lack of a dowry made it difficult for her to find a husband, something Dido didn’t have to worry about. Elizabeth even expressed her jealousy of Dido being able to marry for love rather than security. John Davinier, Dido’s love interest, was another character whose whiteness and in his case, maleness didn’t mean he could evade classism. Dido’s uncle initially considered him to be unsuitable for his niece because he didn’t have a name. John’s white maleness did allow him to be a white savior and that was the only aspect of the movie that I loathed. Dido’s motivation to explore the horrors of slavery derived almost exclusively from John, a lawyer who was trying to prove that slave traders threw their human cargo overboard for insurance money. Eventually, she and John got married and lived happily ever after in post-rac—er, slave trade England. Aside from that bull, it was a great movie. Gugu was stunning and reminded me of a young Kerry Washington with her expressive face and emotive acting. She even has the lip quiver down pact. I can’t wait to see more from her.

That said, If I had to be fancy like a real movie critic, I’d give it an 8.5 out of 10 stars.

You can’t tell me this ain’t a Kerry Washington face.

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