I’m a sucker for a well-told story. When Amma Asante’s second film made its way to select theaters, a year after its initial debut in 2013, my motive for seeing Belle was already born out of parallel interests—the first, a forgiving fascination with the imperfect scope of historical cinema; and the second, an ongoing obsession with the concepts of racial ambivalence and blended cultural identity. But while this film on the whole was widely met with a warm reception, there still remained some voices of disapproval: Belle was far too “polite” for some tastes.
Thoughtfully crafted and intelligently written, this film bases its narrative on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the biracial daughter and heiress of a wealthy British naval officer. Though Dido is raised as a member of the elite, she is only partially included, set apart by the color of her skin, unmistakably marked as a woman of “illegitimate” birth. While Belle is set some time ago, in the mid-1700s when the British slave trade was still at its height, I find Dido’s story consistently startling in its thematic relevance. In her conspicuous isolation, Dido lives by conflicting expectations. She belongs to two worlds, and to neither of them.
Discovering that Asante’s film seeks to address these particular concerns seemed, to me, far too good to be true at first. I’d long conditioned myself, since childhood, to stomach the unspoken understanding existing in this genre of cinema: in grand, “Jane Austen-esque” movies, women of color will not take center stage. It’s that simple. Yet as I watched Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s breathtaking performance as Dido, it was not without a mixture of self-indulgence and self-consciousness. In being finally allowed (for what is it if not a historical allowance?) to vicariously enter the often-romanticized world of the Georgian upper class, I felt at once gratified and uneasy, though I’m not sure what I’d expected from the lavishness of wigged and powdered lords and ladies, who smoothly gulp the term mulatto as easily as they do their tea.
As Belle reaches back into history and upends this genre’s usual racial boundaries, it does not function as your run-of-the-mill historical period piece. Of course, it’s worth noting that this film is as defiantly hopeful as it is artistically stunning, with smart cinematography and elegant costuming guaranteed to satisfy even the most demanding romantic. But we should not be fooled by all this. To the experientially attuned, Belle’s patent visual appeal remains darkened by its historic backdrop, its pleasing aesthetic but a frame encasing subtexts of abhorrent injustice and brutality—realities held tenuously at a distance.
I return to this film often. As someone of mixed ethnic ancestry, watching Dido’s story unfold is something like gazing into a convex mirror, seeing reflected from an unfamiliar angle a frighteningly intimate version of myself. But the satisfaction of this on-screen representation, set against a genre that pigeonholes people of color as a matter of course, is but short-lived against the dismissal of naysayers, who were inclined to find fault with Belle’s overall execution.
Though many critics applauded Belle for its artistry, there was a surprising number, even among enthusiasts, who accused it of “politeness”—an objection aimed largely toward the film’s restrained affect and “happy” ending. But such an appraisal is as disconcerting as it is lazy. What does it sound like when the whitewashed powers-that-be examine a racially-concerned film, and their overarching takeaway boils down to, “Why isn’t there more visceral suffering here? Like in those other slave movies”?
It’s the flipside of another ongoing conversation, recently rekindled, for instance, by the frenzied social media response to the 2015 VMA awards, involving Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, and newly-christened “tone policing.” It’s a catch-22: alongside the expectation that women of color shouldn’t rock the boat lies the assumption that if we’re not supplying just enough grit to meet demand, we’re playing it safe. Of course, densely packed coatings of assumption translate here—that spectacle must be indulged for public consumption; that nuance, subtlety, or restraint is beyond the realm of possibility; that there can only be one type of story curated in our collective consciousness.
Belle is simply an alternate kind of undertaking, as it quietly maintains a pinpoint focus on its subject. This film recognizes a burdensome reality: that in telling one person’s story, it is unable to do justice to everyone else’s. And yet, by infiltrating an exclusive world of “polite” English society, Belle draws attention to larger historic injustices—with earnest humaneness, and the bitter tinge of hope, daring to see its unlikely protagonist through to a seemingly impossible victory. And yes, for a moment, it allows some of us in the audience to experience a taste of this triumph, too. For the first time, over and over again.