Directed by: Amma Asante
Written by: Misan Sagay
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton
Period pieces give us the opportunity to travel back in time and witness events we were not alive to experience. They turn into history lessons wrapped up into entertaining features with wonderful costume design. One thing this genre of film often seems to negate is the diversity that existed even in the most euro-centric societies. With Belle, we get the opportunity to view the life of a pioneering woman who refused to let her mix-race status slow her down.
Fathered by an English nobleman and the daughter of a slave, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) gets brought to England to be raised by her father’s family. As she matures into a young woman, she grows up with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) as they both enter the stage of marriage being on the horizon. A situation that affects them differently because of the color of their skin.
Director Amma Asante seems to be a fan of detailing forbidden interracial couples with her films. Even when they are subpar, her attempts to show the different worlds they come from and how love unites them is admirable. Her best work came in the film Belle because of how it details a society so delicate and fragile that the presence of Dido can leave ripple effects. I’m no scholar of this era in England, so I cannot say for sure if everything that occurred was factual, but at the very least it demonstrates the idea that norms can be broken if people just try.
That’s ultimately the big fear of those who live in a place of privilege and care for those from underrepresented populations. It’s easy to sit back and accept the racism that permeates in this society but it takes incredible courage to push against it in order to do what’s right. This becomes the moment of growth of Dido’s uncle, William (Tom Wilkinson), who loves his niece but remains afraid of what will occur if she’s presented to the world as a lady. Wilkinson puts in a great performance, which is expected, but the character shows a struggle of that era and how one could be outcast for being an abolitionist.
Even with that arc for William, the film belongs to Dido and the wonderful breakout performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She’s becoming one of my favorite actors who seems to go underappreciated in Hollywood, but she always puts in consistently great performances and takes on a variety of roles. She must fight a system with her words, while also trying to follow the rules of high society. That includes being subservient to men, not speaking unless called to, and accepting she’s less than simply for the color of her skin. The narrative takes an interesting twist with this character, as her fortune puts her at a place that would be incredibly appealing for suitors, but her skin color, unfortunately, plays a role. It creates this divide within this racist society as to what they will sacrifice in order to have a large dowry in their marriage. Dido cannot be looked down upon too much, because her financial status forcefully raises her to a level that even racism could not deny.
Additionally, the film looks at how racism is manufactured and not something that naturally breeds within someone. It comes purely from indoctrination, which shows how Elizabeth treats Dido as compared to everyone else who grew up thinking anyone born with darker skin should be considered as lesser. The mindset makes all the difference and all of the white characters in the story go through their own development with how they view Dido within this society. It makes the story all the more fulfilling because it shows that the fight against racism has always existed and justifications of a different time cannot excuse the actions of those who did nothing or participated in an unequal system. It’s looking back at the founding fathers of the United States and how many of them owned slaves. These men did not own them out of pure ignorance of not knowing better, because the advocacy for slaves existed even before their time.
Belle tells a lovely story with luscious costumes and a romance that goes beyond what society expects from its characters. Each of the players of this game gets challenged in their perspective, which should occur in any film and Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings it all together with her portrayal of Dido. A real woman who refused to settle for less and demand the respect she’s owed as a person.