Belle, written by Misan Sagay and directed by Amma Asante, stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Sam Ried in a film based on an historical painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate black woman raised by a wealthy white family and her cousin, a white woman.
After being rescued from slavery by her father, Dido is sent to live with her grandparents while her father goes to war. When he dies, her grandparents then raise her along with her white cousin. Her grandfather is presiding over a court case regarding the treatment of slaves, based on a real case. The question regards whether a slave trading company can make an insurance claim for slaves that died on the voyage, though they were severely maltreated.
Identifying with the slaves, Dido becomes involved with the case, though not with her father’s approval, but by working with a young magistrate.
The film allows the viewer to feel Dido’s discomfort at her place in the world, and to become hyper aware of how different she is from everyone, through small things like camera shots and social events where she stands out, or is not allowed to attend.
The film also does a good job of telling the story of Dido from her perspective, rather than from the perspective of one of her white family members, or her white love interest, as many films about race tend to do.
The performances in the film are great, with Mbatha-Raw in a different role from her other big film of last year, Beyond the Lights, where she played a Rhianna-like pop singer. Tom Felton, known to the world as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, plays a small role that is similar in type to the character of Malfoy, who represents the racist views of the day.
In many ways, the film is not historically accurate, and it doesn’t particularly pretend to be, only being based on a portrait, not on the actual story behind the portrait, which is largely unknown. However, the fact that Dido was a real person raised by her wealthy white family is interesting on its own right for the time period, and the film doesn’t shy away from the issues that came with that.
Belle is a recommended film that is both entertaining and thought provoking, with the court decision that the film revolves around, that of whether black slaves constituted property or people, is reflected in Dido’s uncommon advances in society as well as the thing that holds her back, the color of her skin.
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