The genre, a comedy of manners, often features quick-witted women who fight injustice with their words, while humorously and critically navigating class and romance. Jane Austen classics are a great example, and are still popular today. The recently released film, Belle, gives viewers everything they expect from the genre, along with something noticeable lacking from stories like Pride and Prejudice: people of color. Romantic, smart, and headstrong protagonist, Belle, is black. This movie is based on true events.
Dido Elizebeth Belle was born in 1761. Her mother was a slave, and her white father, a captain in the Royal Navy. After her mother’s death Dido escaped the harsh life her skin color should have confined her to. Instead she was raised by her Great uncle, Earl Mansfield, as a member of their family, given an education befitting a lady. Belle might have been forgotten by history if not for a famous painting that depicts her and the cousin she was raised with.
According to Sarah Minney, a genealogist who spent two years researching Belle's history:
“Images from the period, most famously Hogarth’s work, show black people living in the squalor of London’s underclass. But there is one notable exception – a remarkable portrait of an aristocratic black girl.”
In the painting, Belle, is wearing wealthy clothing, her white cousin's arm affectionately at her waist. They appear as of equal status. This painting is a prominent part of the movie, and Belle’s unique true story (with some liberties taken) is explored as a sweeping romantic historical fiction.
Dealing with class, courtships, status, gender and race, this movie is both comedic and dramatic. Set against the backdrop of the young abolitions movement and a controversial court case involving slave traders killing off their cargo for insurance, viewers follow Belle as she tries to make a good match in a society that does not know where to place a black women of status. She is, to quote the film: “too high in class to dine with the servants, while too low in class to eat with her family.”
Bringing up fascinating issues of the time, like a young man who wishes to break down the confines of race and class, and yet must do so by rising up the political ladder of class himself. Or the complexity of a women’s place in a time where a good match was made by having a dowry, which meant a women ended up paying a man to take ownership of her, as after the marriage she would be considered his property.
As a fan of historical fiction, I loved this movie. Belle is a Jane Austen styled flick that uses modern sensibilities to ask the difficult questions about politics, race and class that are often glossed over in films based on classic literature about the time period. I would highly recommend this movie, and would rate it five out five stars if not for one unfortunate flaw.
Belle, a movie starring a black protagonist, about class and race, featuring the abolitionist movement – only just passes the Racial Bechdel Test by a single conversation. This conversation, about hair, between Belle and a black household servant is the only time we see Belle speak to another character of color. Mabel, the servant, is the only other black character of any substance in the film, and in reality she is in only a few scenes, with a handful of inconsequential lines. The result is that a social rights movement in which black men and women fought against a system that oppressed them is retold through a primarily wealthy white voice.
Historically at the time this movie takes place, there were black freeborn men and women in England, and freed slaves who became abolitionists. During the same years as this story, Ignatius Sancho became the first black person from Africa to vote in parliamentary election in Britain. Though the film prominently features the Zong case, which helped end slavery in Britain, Belle forgets to mention the work of people like the Sons of Africa: black freedom fighters, including famous author of Interesting Narratives (1789), Olaudah Equiano. Sons of Africa worked to publicize the Zong case, using it to fight against the enslavement of their people.
The end result is a bit like watching a movie about the women’s suffrage in which the female protagonist only has one minor conversation with another woman, and all conversation on women’s rights are discussed with men. This creates an unfortunate shadow on a film that by all other accounts is a wonderful watch.
So, I recommend this movie, but I recommend it along with other readings like:
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African by Olaudah Equino Voices From Slavery: The Life and Beliefs of African Slaves in Britain by Chigor Chike And for an interesting (and far less romanticized then this movie) look at what living in London at the time would have been like: 1700s: Scenes from London by Maureen Waller