Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers of the movie Belle. If you haven’t watched it already, go see it, then come back and read this article! 🙂
Anybody who knows me knows how most of the movies out there tend to annoy the hell out of me. Part of it, I will admit, is because I am a pretty difficult person to satisfy and I always seem to find something to nit pick. But for the most part, what annoys me to no end is how almost every single movie (and TV show) I watch has sexist and/or racist elements in it that just drive me crazy (I’m sure you know the feeling). So just as I tweeted Amma Asante (the director of Belle, who in fact favourited my tweet, yay me!), watching Belle really felt like a much needed breath of fresh air.
Honestly, when you got yourself a political drama about slavery with just a dash of Jane Austen added to it, it’s hard to go wrong. But what I loved most about the story isn’t only the fact that it centers around a woman of color (which is something that you almost never get to see in movies) but also and mostly that both the fact that the protagonist is a woman, and a person of mixed race wasn’t portrayed in a stereotypical way. What we have with Belle is a story about people, and while certain things that they cannot control (their gender and race) affect their lives and the way society treats them, those elements do not define them.
Regarding women first of all, we see that they are friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, rivals at times. For instance, I really enjoyed the relationship between Dido and Elizabeth which to me, captured what a true friendship generally is. Dido and Beth are like sisters, best friends who tell each other everything and enjoy each other’s company. They look out for each other constantly. When Dido gets to know that she can’t be introduced to society due to the fact that the Mansfields consider that she could never hope to find a suitable match due to the color of her skin, Beth is almost more upset about it than Dido is. Both girls run into each other’s arms for comfort. Because that’s what they are to each other: best friends, sisters, a safe haven. There is a common misconception that women hate each other but, if you are a woman, think for a moment, who are your best friends? Who are the people you feel you can tell anything to, the people who really got your back? Chances are they’re mostly women; and this movie depicted it wonderfully.
Dido also showed Beth much compassion when she offered to give her a portion of her heritage in order to make the latter’s dowry more attractive to potential suitors, or when she gave her a shoulder to cry on when James Ashford turned out refusing her affections. Just like any friendship, though, there have been some rough patches. We see it when Dido confesses to Beth that James Ashford harassed her. Beth, who is completely penniless, and has been pressured into “securing her bread and butter” by finding a suitable husband, reacts very harshly to such a confession, telling Dido that he could never desire her because she is “beneath him”. She hurls out those harsh words partly due to her own racism (let’s keep it real, she’s a white girl in the 1700’s!) and partly because of her despair in seeing her one and only suitor slip through her fingers. That scene could have very easily been portrayed as a cat fight; two silly women fighting, ruining their friendship over a man. However, it came off as two friends saying things that they didn’t really mean, as it often is the case in real life.
Secondly, concerning Dido’s ethnicity, the color of her skin is something that is constantly brought up during the whole movie. Almost every scene has something to do with her blackness and how much of an “Other” she is. While she is well accepted in her white family, she cannot escape that difference. Yet what I enjoyed most was that as much as her “abnormality” seems to be brought up, none of it ever defines her. She is smart, strong-willed and witty, because that is what women of color are, they have their own personality; not because they’re women, not because they are “of color”, but simply because they are humans! That side of it came out beautifully in the movie, and was a pleasant change from the one dimensional, stereotypical women Hollywood insists on feeding us with.
However, while the story is set in 1769 England, I found that a lot of things do still ring true in today’s society. For instance, the scene in which Oliver Ashford separates Dido’s ancestry, choosing to ignore her (black) mother’s origins and focus on her “better half” which has “equipped her with loveliness and privilege”, it is something that is still quite rampant in today’s entertainment business. Just look at the amount of shows and movies that cast actors that are black but not “too black”, East Asian, but not “too East Asian”, South Asian, but not “too South Asian”, etc. Why is it that we hardly ever see any actors that look like Lupita N’Yongo, Lucy Liu or Parminder Nagra on our screens? Generally, successful “non-white” actors are those that are lighter skinned and/or have a white connection (Halle Berry, Zoe Saldana, Jessica Alba, Jesse Williams, Kristin Kreuk, Frida Pinto, Wentworth Miller, Vanessa Hudgens, etc.). That is because casting directors, producers, networks and Hollywood as a whole has taught itself to focus on the “better half” of these actors. Because these actors’ appearance is less “ethnic”, therefore making it less “shocking” to what Hollywood deems average audience members are: poor impressionable racist white people. This is obviously a huge misconception on their part. Logic dictates that audience members are diverse and come in different shapes, sizes and colors; and I also know for a fact that most white people are able to relate to characters regardless of their color. Just think about the amount of people that related to the blue aliens from Avatar! Hollywood needs to let go of its bigoted views and understand that what makes a character relateable is good writing, not the color of one’s skin. That is something that Belle has proven brilliantly.
Another thing I found really enjoyable was how being “of color” wasn’t merely shown as something that any one ought to be ashamed of or treat with derision, but rather that it was something to be proud of, something beautiful; a narrative painfully absent in movies. Speaking of people of color as beautiful is indeed something that is still somewhat unheard of in entertainment. In one scene, Dido tells Mr. Davinier that she knows nothing of her mother except for the color she’s inherited from her. “Then at least you know she was beautiful” says Mr. Davinier. You tell’em John!
And for good reason! Unfortunately, white guys telling girls of color that they are beautiful, not only inside, but outside as well, is simply non-existent in most movies. Dido’s relationships with men not only breaks that trend, but is also very true to life, mirroring extremely well what women of color too often go through with white men. Mr. Davinier represents the kind of white man that we could date or marry. Then there’s James Ashford. The scene in which he sexually harasses Dido is very telling of what a lot of white men are conditioned to think about us. In that scene, you see in James Ashford’s eyes his repulsion and fear for what is different (Dido’s chocolate skin) mixed with a certain fascination and curiosity (what is different is also novel). That scene embodies the complexity of racism which in the end is a twisted mix of attraction and repulsion. In fact, racists often try to hide their racism by bragging that their best friend/wife/husband is black/asian/jewish/[insert minority]. Both Ashfords illustrate two types of white guys that I must confess I’ve often come across (though definitely not as blatantly). On one hand, there’s James Ashford, the narrow-minded white guy who has been taught and conditioned to feel attracted to only one type of beauty, the “pure English rose”; on the other hand, there’s Oliver Ashford who seems drawn to the “rare and exotic”, like some sort of sick fetishism. Though they are polar opposites when it comes to their feelings for Dido, both brothers objectify her pretty equally, treating her like a “dark body” to be consumed and/or ridiculed. Only Mr. Davinier sees Dido for who she really is, striking a perfect balance between loving her regardless of the color of her skin and recognizing the beauty of that skin.
Belle teaches all of us a beautiful lesson of self-worth that remains much too absent in film and dare I say in life. We see how Dido gets engaged to Oliver Ashford so suddenly, despite the fact that she clearly doesn’t love him. Marrying Oliver Ashford is an opportunity of a lifetime for Dido who knows that a woman of her status could never dream of a better match and that marrying into the Ashford family would help secure her place in society, keeping her from having to replace Lady Mary Murray as house keeper. Dido keeps lying to herself, fooling herself into believing that she is in love with Oliver Ashford, because if she did refuse him, who was to say that any other respectable suitor would come her way? Isn’t that something that a lot of people ask themselves? “I don’t really love him/her, but what if I never find what I’m looking for?” That’s how we end up settling for less, rather than taking risks to pursue what it is that we really want. Mr. Davinier strikes the nail on the head when he says, “You are above reducing yourself for the sake of rank. I pray that he would marry you without a penny to your name for that is a man who would truly treasure you.” Through those words, we are taught a lesson that we may have often heard but too often forget.
While the story is set in the late 1700’s, and addresses the harsh realities women had to deal with at that time, having to sell themselves to secure their future, relegated to nothing “but [men’s] property (…) at the caprice of a silly sir and his fortune”, I found that Lady Mary Murray, played by Downton Abbey‘s own Penelope Wilton (though a supporting character) was very interesting and empowering. As a single woman who often tells Dido and Beth about her one true love that she never married, she could have very easily been portrayed as a pathetic old maid, but on the contrary, she is smart, has strong opinions, wit, is feisty, and in my opinion a true feminist, even advising Beth to “wait for no man”.
Of course, there is no such thing as perfect and I do have a few issues with this movie, especially regarding its failure to address even in a sentence Dido’s formative years as a slave, as well as her relationship later on with the white servants of the house (who I doubt would have appreciated taking orders from a “mulatto”) as well as with Mabel (her black maid). Addressing these issues would have helped bring more depth to the story and emphasize the harshness and sheer loneliness of Dido’s condition. The absence of such elements did therefore leave me somewhat disappointed.
Finally, I am one of those people who stays in the theater till the very end in order to watch the credits roll, and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised to notice the amount of women involved in making this movie. Amma Asante is a British-Ghanain director, though relatively unknown, this was her second feature film and I’m excited to see what else she has in store. Misan Sigay (a black woman) wrote the screenplay (though there has been some controversy over who wrote what between Asante and herself). Due to the fact that I am so obsessed with soundtracks, I have a pretty clear idea of just how male dominated the field of film scores is. You can therefore imagine how ecstatic I was when I realised that Rachel Portman composed the music. For those who don’t know her, she was the first female composer to ever win an Academy Award (you might know her from movies such as Marvin’s Room, Emma or The Duchess) and she certainly did an exquisite job with the score of Belle, giving it a very elegantly haunting Jane Austenish quality. The movie was also edited by two women: Pia Di Ciaula and Victoria Boydell, the costumes designed by Anushia Nieradzik, and women are present in pretty much every aspect of production rather equally to their male counterparts. An honorable mention also goes to the beautiful cinematography provided by Ben Smithard (granted, he’s not a woman, but talent isn’t specific to one gender) who just blew me away with wonderful shots, some of them reminiscent (deliberately or not) of one of the most important movies about women: The Color Purple.
The quality of this movie is a testament to just how badly the entertainment industry is in need of women and people of color involved in positions of leadership (directing, producing especially). Only then can we be grazed with such truthful stories about human beings, as opposed to the stereotypical representations of women and minorities that so often pollute our minds.
“Does the law not have a duty? Does the Bench and Parliament not have a duty to uphold and create the laws that progress our morality, not retard it? If not to protect us from others, then to protect us from ourselves. Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are frameworks for crime. And quite frankly, I really do not care if you as an individual are without character or conscience. But a land whose laws sanction, not control, the barbarous among its citizens, that is a country whose hope is lost.” Mr. Davinier
Each of us have a part to play in igniting that fire, whether as audience members, by supporting movies depicting women and minorities fairly; and/or as artists working hard to access leadership positions in the world of entertainment, so that stories like Belle and The Color Purple may become the rule, not the exception.