“Belle” (2013) is a British film about Dido Elizabeth Belle, a rich Black woman who lived in Britain in the late 1700s. Based on a true story, it stars the beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw and was written and directed by Black women, Amma Asante and Misan Sagay. It is like a Jane Austen story except that the main character is Black!
Dido Elizabeth Belle, as the film informs us, was born to a Black slave woman and a White sea captain of the British Navy. When she was a little girl, her mother died and her father took her to live with his uncle while he was at sea – where he died. Her great-uncle and aunt, who are childless, bring her up with their White niece, Bette, who is about the same age. They grow up as sisters.
Her great-uncle was not just anyone: he was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, the highest judge in the land. As a lord he brings up Bette and Belle to be gentlewomen. As Lord Chief Justice he must make rulings on slavery…
Most of the film takes place in 1783 just when Belle and Bette are put on the marriage market and her great-uncle has to rule on:
The Zong Massacre: the captain of the slave ship Zong threw 132 slaves chained together into the sea to die. They were sick and dying. Because of insurance, they were worth more dead than alive. The insurance company called it murder and refused to pay. But “murder” would mean the slaves were human, not mere property, that they had rights…
It is not just slaves who are being valued by money. In the high-society marriage market that Belle and Bette enter, they find that the money they bring to a marriage matters far more than anything else. Belle’s father left her 2,000 pounds a year, making her a rich woman. Bette’s father left her nothing. So, even though Belle is Black, she has less trouble attracting men. But they are in love with her money.
Like in Jane Austen, people are hung up on following rules and on getting as much money as possible, even when they have more than enough. They forget about what truly matters in life. They forget about what makes them human, which makes them inhuman. Belle, as Black but rich, does not fit their well-oiled rules and laws, showing them up for what they are: heartless.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw was so beautiful I could have watched the film with the sound off, so the plot comes as an added feature. I loved the lines so much that I was constantly rewinding. But I was also rewinding because they spoke in a formal way where each word counts. It would have worked better as a book.
The film was inspired by a painting, the only British painting of the 1700s that shows Blacks and Whites as near equals: a painting of Belle and Bette from 1779:
– Abagond, 2016.
- Welcome to Black Women’s History Month 2016!
- British Empire