Belle tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, born to a British naval officer while he was stationed in the West Indies. During her childhood, he took her back to England and left her in the care of his Uncle, Lord William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. Dido was raised with her cousin, Elizabeth Murray and the two grow close as sisters. The painting is famous for depicting the two girls as equals rather than Dido being Elizabeth’s subordinate. The painting was the inspiration for this film.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, here are a few reasons to check it out:
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is beautiful and heartbreaking and romantic. She plays the divided nature of Dido’s worlds very well—too high in monetary rank to be considered a servant, but her skin color disallows her from eating with the family at formal dinners. And the scene where she grasps at and curses her skin color is heartbreaking but oh so real. She is smart and talented and so wonderfully flirty when falling in love with John Davinier. It’s wonderful to see a black woman carrying a film the way she does; if only Hollywood understood that she’s not the only one who can do it. Gugu is in an upcoming film—Beyond the Lights by Love & Basketball writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood, but also appeared on Doctor Who in season 3 as Martha Jones’s sister and on the very short-lived JJ Abrams show Undercovers on NBC in 2010.
It’s a true story. Of course liberties were taken, but Dido really lived with her cousin and was equally included in the painting alongside Elizabeth but also, her uncle really did preside over the case of the Zong Massacre, which helped paved the way for the Slave Trade Act of 1807, abolishing slave trade in the British Empire (though not slavery itself). History like this isn’t well known in mainstream media and we should support stories like it whenever we get a chance. Our history is more than slavery and the Jim Crow era.
One line used in the film which I love, actually spoken by Lord Mansfield in real life, is “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.” Considering current events in the black community these days, it’s a sentiment that I wish would lie in the hearts of more people who benefit from the status quo.
British accents. Do I really need to say more? I legitimately spoke in a British accent the rest of the evening the day I watched this movie. Gugu’s accent is wonderful and lyrical and I could listen to it all day. Sometimes it feels like the spectrum of the English language goes from British as the utmost “proper” and grammatical standard to African-American vernacular as ghetto “improper” speech that has no rules or form (that falsehood is a discussion for another day). I think many people will benefit from seeing black people speak with British accents, if anything just to break the idea that black people only speak one way (Idris Elba isn’t black Brit).
It’s a regency romance. It’s rare enough seeing black women in romantic films as it is, but a romantic period piece? Even rarer; our films in the mainstream are usually relegated to slavery and the American Civil Rights era with little room for romance and happily ever after’s. It’s wonderful getting to see a black woman in a Jane Austen-style romance, because black women enjoy these kinds of stories too and it’s great to finally see ourselves in one. Plus, here in America, it’s rare to see films about blacks in nations not in Africa or here in the States. Black audiences as well as white audiences benefit from seeing blacks in Britain, Canada, France, Korea, Japan, etc. We have lived and fallen in love in nearly every country and every period of history and it’s time we got to see that on screen.
Positive female friendship. Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth, act as sisters throughout the movie. In fact, their closeness in the painting and being set on equal planes lets the viewer see that even in real life, they must have treated each other as equals. Their relationship is given almost as much screen time as Dido’s relationship with John. In a world that strives to separate them, they cling together by the nature of their opposing circumstances (Dido can’t marry anyone rich because she’s black, but can’t marry anyone without status because she’s rich; Elizabeth hasn’t found a rich match, but can’t marry poor because she doesn’t have any money). It’s hard for them to pass the Bechdel test, considering how important marriage was to women of their time, but you can tell that boys are not the basis of their relationship.
There are many other reasons to watch and enjoy Belle. It’s beautifully shot, well written, and is simply mesmerizing. I definitely encourage you to watch this film.