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'Belle' accomplishes more than telling one woman's story



Great Britain, having abolished slavery several years before the United States of America, has a different relationship than America to the institution and its fallout on the world today. Notwithstanding, racism and other negative misgivings that have descended from the practice have wielded their way into people's subconscious, and generation after generation, the hope is that all of humanity will grow continually toward treating each other as we would wish to be treated, so that every person's dignity and self worth can be equally respected.

Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, and Emily Watson
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Dido Elizabeth Belle, born in 1761, was the child of one Captain John Lindsay of the Royal British navy and an enslaved African woman of the West Indies, named Maria Belle, with whom he had an affair during his time stationed there. Lindsay brought their daughter Dido back to England with him and entrusted her to be raised by his uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and aunt, Murray's wife, Lady Margery Murray. The Mansfields were childless and raised (in addition to Dido), a Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose parents had died.

Dido's place in society made for a very interesting subject matter, and points out notions of class and race and the often ridiculous ways in which people allow such matters to divide one another. She was not treated as a servant or a slave girl, and the Mansfields raised her as a royal, providing comforts as well as manners training befit of someone of such standing. There is some evidence that she aided her uncle in correspondence and dictation, which would signal her being rather well educated. Yet she was disallowed certain privileges or traditional occasions, (such as dining with house guests, for instance), that another girl—one who was not fundamentally seen by the white, ruling class as "other"—would have been, were such a girl in Dido's position. But Dido was an illegitimate daughter, which at the time was seen as even more grievous a fault to overcome in high society than that of her being of a racially mixed background.

It is this fascinating story of Dido's life which the beautiful film Belle, directed by Amma Asante, aims to tell. It does so quite successfully in a powerful tone, which is simultaneously akin to that of the charming Masterpiece Theatre Classic style as well as a modern look back at the cultural mores of eighteenth century England, fraught with its moral indecision over slavery and its ongoing cultural obsession with class.

The main subject of the film, Ms. Dido Elizabeth Belle, is played by the indescribably striking Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who by all measures appears born to have played the role. Her overall look, enhanced by the way the cinematography of the film is shot, frames each moment she is in with a beauty that only amplifies from one scene to the next. The costumes, sets, and subtle acting of a great number of the cast truly make this a delightful film to take in. Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson, as Lord and Lady Mansfield add a gravitas to the cast, and Tom Felton shows up, demonstrating his snide, sneering Draco Malfoy-esque best as a ill-willed potential suitor, James Ashford. Matthew Goode briefly makes an appearance as Belle's father, Captain Lindsay.

The film is robust in its attempt to tell many pieces of the story surrounding Dido's life, a life about which very little is factually known, but over which much can be fascinatingly mused. It fits in a subplot of her falling in love with one John Davinier, (Sam Reid), of whom Lord Mansfield disapproves as being beneath her station, (a seemingly ever-changing status which can appear to mean different things at different times, often seeming to depend on whatever is most convenient for the highest ranked members of society present or concerned at the time of decision).

A predominant drive in the story and the backdrop against which many of the themes and plot details are playing out is the larger cultural conversation regarding slavery and the abolition in Britain thereof. Lord Mansfield is involved at the time in a court case known as Gregson v. Gilbert, which dealt with the Zong massacre, where 142 African slaves were murdered during the voyage of the Zong slave ship, in 1781. Such as his involvement with this case is, he cannot help but see the truth that all people are equal at the end of the day. Knowing the portrayal in the film of how he raised the lovely Dido as his own, and watching his moral struggle to fully comprehend this overwhelming reality of equality among persons makes for thrilling and emotionally charged viewing experience for the audience.

The pacing of the movie is very steady and the look of the scenery, costumes, and settings displayed rivals that of any stellar costume drama before it. Belle is a distinctly luscious experience to behold, visually, emotionally, and intellectually; at its conclusion viewers are left feeling the comfort not unlike that given from a Jane Austen love story, blended with the hope for a brighter vision of the future, one in which equality reigns supreme and lessons may actually be learned and reaped out from under the ashen cloud left in the air by the volcanic mar the institution of slavery was (and is) to the face of humanity.

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