Movie review – Racist, sexist, classist Britain

2014-06-29 15:00

Film: Belle (Nu Metro)

Director: Amma Asante

Featuring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson

Dido Elizabeth Belle, the character Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays in Belle, is not able to come out in society, but Belle is likely Mbatha-Raw’s coming out to Hollywood’s A-list. The British actress – with a South African father – is not new on the block, but this film, which she headlines, has already made her agent’s phone ring off the hook.

Belle, which is based on true events, explores the intricacies of institutional prejudice in Britain from the parlours and drawing rooms of its most privileged families. This against the backdrop of the case of the Zong, a slave ship whose captain murdered the slaves on board to claim the insurance money on their lives. This case was instrumental in the abolitionist movement in Britain, as finally the humanity of slaves could no longer be ignored by the genteel classes.

The Lord Chief Justice of Britain, William Murray, who will soon be deliberating on the case of the Zong, is also Dido’s guardian after her father leaves her in his care. Dido comes to the Murrays in 1769 and she is not only illegitimate, but mulatto too. This creates all sorts of potential for social faux pas for the Murrays.

They take her in anyway and change begins – painfully slowly – from the inside of their home out.

The Murrays have Dido and her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) in their care and the two grow up as sisters. Dido may not eat with them in the dining room, yet she is too posh to eat with the servants. It’s horribly funny, the kind of attention to detail given to degrees of intolerance in Britain’s classist, racist and sexist society.

Except it’s not funny, as at the centre of it is a young woman whose very existence is proof that – to quote Depeche Mode – people are people.

With a trio of women – director Amma Asante, writer Misan Sagay and star Mbatha-Raw – at the helm, this film is as much a feminist piece as it is about the inhumanity of slavery.

It is a story in which the routines of domesticity throw into sharp relief the inhuman practices that are part of the fabric of society. Thanks to her loving if absent father, Dido is left a fortune of £2?000 a year. While her cousin Elizabeth might be the right colour, she’s impoverished. So begins the coming out of Elizabeth to get her sold to a man who can support her, for “without a husband, who will look after her?”

Dido, meanwhile, can’t have her coming-out because, well, she’s black. Yet her cash-rich status allows certain “well-bred” but cash-poor families to “overlook” her mother’s slave status.

While the bigger issues play out, at the centre of this poignant film is a love story that seems so written in the stars you’d think the writer made it up. But no, Dido’s love, John Davinier, is real and is the man she eventually married. The concept for the film was born from the portrait of Elizabeth and Dido that hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland, but used to hang in the Murrays’ ancestral home.

It shows the two as equals, rather than the style of the day, which was to have the black servant at a lower level in the painting.

Producer Damian Jones saw it and Belle began. “I was astonished to see this completely ambiguous portrait of a stunning black woman and a stunning white woman. Were they friends? Were they sisters? Was one a servant? You couldn’t tell?...?I think it’s fair to say most portraits of the period do not feature black people, unless they’re obviously servants or slaves. So I wanted to delve deeper.”

Mbatha-Raw holds this film together with grace and power, allowing it to shine as the perfect blend of a love story and a tale of social justice. It is as important a film as 12 Years a Slave on this subject.

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