Written By: Amma Asante, Misan Sagay
Publication Info: 2014
Genre: Historical: European
Belle is a historical drama about 18th Century England that combines a thrilling coming of age and social justice story with a swoon-worthy romance. The scenery is beautiful, the clothes are beautiful, the male lead is sensitive, and the female lead has agency.
Also the script is so packed with brilliant lines that I want to put it in a frame and stare at it all day.
So basically – it’s a great movie for all kinds of reasons.
Belle is a historical fiction inspired by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race woman who lived as an aristocrat in 18th Century England. Not much is known about the real Dido, but we know that she seems to have been a beloved, well-educated member of the household of the Lord Chief Justice of England during a time when slavery faced serious legal challenges in the courts of Britain. Director Amma Asanate and screenwriter Misan Sagay take the scant but exciting historical facts and weave them into a rich and thrilling romance and coming of age story in which Belle must choose whether to marry for money or for love, and must choose whether to turn a blind eye to social injustice or attempt to influence her Grand-uncle, the Chief Justice, as he prepares to rule on a court case that could further the cause of abolition.
This movie has the stately pace of most historical costume dramas, but it is electrifying because of the passionate performances and the script. The people in this movie use words the way The Avengers use rocket launchers. I’m sorry I don’t have any lines to repeat absolutely verbatim but also glad not to spoil them for you.
Let’s talk about the romance, shall we? Mr. Davinier, played by Sam Reid, is the son of a clergyman. Like Belle, he fits in a middle space between gentry and commoners. He wishes to be a Chief Justice himself one day, and he has the rank to pursue a career in law but he doesn’t have the funds without a sponsor.
It’s really no spoiler to refer to him as the romantic lead even though Belle has another suitor. The other suitor is portrayed immediately as a backstabbing, shallow, cruel, racist opportunist whereas Mr. Daivinier is adorkable and burns with fervor to make the world a better place. He respects Belle as a person – as an equal. While other people see Belle’s racial history as something to triumph over, he respects it as part of who she is. He is the only person who asks her what she recalls of her mother (who was West Indian). When Belle says all she knows of her mother is that she left Belle her appearance, he says, “Then you know that she was very beautiful”.
WOW. You. Guys. I hope that doesn’t sound like a come-on line out of context. In context, believe me, I could have passed out.
And what’s great is that she returns this respect – not deference, but respect. He is humiliated again and again because of his social stature, and she could not give a fuck about that. When things work out for him he’s astonished and she’s all, “Well, of course you finally got a break. You’re hard-working, principled, and brilliant, everyone can see that, and there’s no question but that you deserve to have everything you want, OBVIOUSLY”.
Meanwhile he’s all, “Why are we wondering whether or not you should sit at dinner with your family? You’re a lady, you're intelligent, you’re brave and capable and strong, and you should sit wherever the hell you want to, OBVIOUSLY”. Dido is ignored because she’s a woman, and a woman of color. Mr. Davinier is ignored because his family works and does not have money. But once they grow to recognize each other as people, as equals, these two are an unstoppable force.
There are so many things to love about this movie – its refusal to be exploitative, its richly portrayed relationships between women of many different ages and levels of status, the relationship between Dido and her Great-Uncle, and, of course, the romance. My one gripe is that the villains of the piece are too cartoony. They are so bitter and so one-dimensional that they detract from the overall strength of the movie, which is that most people are actively struggling to do the right thing but don’t know what it is. The mathematics of marriage and the mathematics of society rule the lives of Dido’s family in fascinating and horrifying ways, and this is more interesting than watching people be mean just because they’re jerks. I’m not denying that there are people who are jerks; I’m just saying that jerks are dull whereas people who are complicated and conflicted are not.
I could write about this movie for weeks because there’s a lot to talk about in it – I haven’t even touched on the court case, for instance, and it’s the point the whole movie revolves around. But before I quit typing and go to bed I want to say how much I love the relationship between Dido and Elizabeth, her foster sister. I don’t have siblings, but my mom has several, and I’ve observed that no one fights like sisters, in every sense of the word. No one fights each other like sisters (when Elizabeth and Dido, who are normally best friends, throw down, it’s not pretty) and no one fights for each other like sisters. I love these two characters.
I found a great article about Dido at The Root. This article also talks a bit about other people of color who lived in England at the time. Mary Robinette Kowal has written several times on her blog about diversity in Regency England. And of course, if you want to go further back, there’s the popular and delightful Tumbler account Medieval POC.
One of the things I loved about Belle is that although Dido is the only major character on screen who is a person of color, she is not the only person of color in the film. The maid is black (she is an ally of Dido’s who, in a touching scene, helps her with her hair) and the courtroom during the climatic trial scene has many black people in the courtroom waiting to hear the verdict. This rang true since I’ve been learning more about the ethnic and racial make up of 18th and 19th Century England in the last year or so.
I also found this interview with the director. There’s a ton of great interviews with her online, but I singled this one out because of this quote, when she is asked why she included romance in the story:
If I'm honest, I wanted to show a woman of color being loved. We don't see it that often. I wanted to change the conversation a little bit, change the dialogue a little bit — we are loved, [and] we can be loved. Dido was valuable enough to be loved, she was worthy of being loved, and she was loved. Her challenge was showing people the right way to love her in the way that she needed to be.
This film is currently in theatres in the US and should have a wider release during the last week of May/first weeks of June. You can find local listings at Fandango and Moviefone. You can learn more about Belle at the official website for the film.
NB from Sarah: There's an interesting EW article about the battle for screenwriting credit for this film, as well as further explanation in IndieWire.)