Here are two unique critical perspectives on BELLE (2014, Amma Asante), from Ellen Sebastian Chang and Asha Richardson.
BELLE: A Personal Response
by Ellen Sebastian Chang
“when africa says hello
my mouth is a heartbreak
because i have nothing in my tongue
to answer her.
i don’t know how to say hello to my mother.”
Before I begin my response to BELLE, the film inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and the slave Marie Belle, who is reared and sheltered by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield and his wife, it is important that you know a bit about who is writing.
Belle was born in 1761. I was born in 1955. We are both illegitimate and mulatto. Though in my case, my father is black and my mother, white. They legally could not marry. The miscegenation laws dictated my illegitimacy. My mother was advised to give her black baby up for adoption, as she would be ostracized from her own race. My father’s family intervened. I grew up with my black working-class grandparents, whom I believed to be my parents until the age of ten, whereupon I learned of my white mother. At age fourteen I moved to Berkeley, California to meet and live with my white mother who worked for the University of California. My white mother exposed me to film and to the theater. My white mother exposed me to the higher-educated class of Kensington and UC Berkeley, a class of people I would have rarely encountered if I had continued to live with my black grandparents in a small farming town. Mainly whites, and a few middle-class blacks and Asians surrounded me. I learned so much about what they believed to be of value and importance, rationalized as right, even manners (think Emily Post), and how to fit in among Them. I learned all this, but I lost touch with so much of my black life in the process. And I lost the touch of all the working-class black women who combed my hair and talked to ME and into me. I remember, after living with my mom for a month, I finally got the courage to ask, “Who will do my hair?” And the look she gave me is one I will never forget, a look that said what the hell are you talking about?, because she had never experienced my hair or me. And she politely answered, “My mother braided my hair when I was a little girl, but you are no longer a little girl, so you do your own hair.”
And so I begin my response to BELLE, the 2013 British film inspired by the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle beside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. BELLE, written by Misan Sagay and directed by Amma Asante, is an engaging story, well-shot, well-written and performed by lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, navigating her protected circumstances of decorum and prejudice. BELLE is a film that requires attention not just for the historical information of Zong ship murder of slaves and the ruling to abolish slavery in England, but also for a more refined attention that leads to deeper-rooted questions: attention to social codes, attention to who is and who is not present, and who has agency/power on and off the screen to legitimize our stories. Belle, the character, is not the tragic mulatta, but she and the film both have a case of what I will now refer to as Belle’s Syndrome: “She is free and under our protection.” This is Lord Mansfield’s (Tom Wilkinson) response to Belle’s question of whether or not Mabel, the black servant in their London home, is a slave. Belle: “A free Negro who begs for a master…” As free Negro(s), we still beg to the powers that control our main laws and institutions, including the film industry, for we must continually frame our stories in relationship to how they will be legitimized.
Screenwriter Misan Sagay: “In 2004 I sent out written pitches and pitched in person a Jane Austenesque love story that allows us to explore the black British presence in a surprising way. It was very difficult because in those days everyone I met said that no one was interested in slavery. So I went on alone.”
I come back to the hair.
Thomas Hutchinson, the former royal governor of the American colony of Massachusetts, recorded in his diary after a visit to Kenwood in 1779: “A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion.”
Who combed Belle’s hair, after she left the silent unnamed black woman in the opening frames, who laced her small corset and tied her shoes? Who knew how to comb her hair without tugging and pulling and causing great pain? Mid-way in the film, when the black servant Mabel enters the bedchamber of Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), she observes Belle struggling with the tangle of her hair: “Start with the ends,” Mabel instructs. The look from Belle read to me volumes of subtext, that she had struggled on her own all these years in regard to her black body and her black worth. In the scene that follows (all shot in the reflection of a large mirror), Mabel gently combs the ends of Belle’s hair. Both Belle and Lady Elizabeth watch attentively. “My Mum taught me”, says Mabel. Belle smiles.
“This painting is the evidence.” The painting is a beautiful symbol that represents Belle’s fear that she may find that, like other blacks, “We are no better in paintings…” But instead it is unveiled that, despite social constraints and racial prejudice, Belle was cared for and loved. And that painting would one day reveal this.
I know personally the power to be placed on the family. At age 15 I met my Irish German family. In the family room was a wall with all the family dating back to the very late 1890s, and as my eyes scanned the wall, my mind chanted white people white people white people because I was not there. After years of visits and struggling to be loved and understood by the other half of my family, I returned one day and found myself on that family wall. My photo was there. I became evidence that I existed as a member of this family. I teased my German grandmother as I pointed to all the photos and finally pointing at the photo of me, I asked “And how do you explain that one?” And she simply said, “I don’t.”
But we do need to explain from both perspectives: to understand that we have always been a part of history and family and to understand why we have been denied history and family. Boom! #culturalcode. Understand the Nappy—start with ends and work your way to the roots or we will never be free to truly understand the tangle.
Ellen Sebastian Chang is the Owner and General Manager of FuseBOX Restaurant in West Oakland. She is also a director, writer and a creative consultant for the Zellerbach Family Fund’s Performing Arts Assistance Program. Ms. Sebastian Chang was the cofounder and artistic director of LIFE ON THE WATER, a national and internationally known presenting and producing organization at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center from 1986 through 1995. In 2013 she was the Consulting Producer for HBO’s “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley.” Her 1982 directorial and writing debut called Your Place Is No Longer With Us was created in a Victorian mansion and told the coming-of-age story of a ten-year-old biracial girl; a meal of black-eyed peas, mustard greens and corn bread cooked throughout the performance and was served to the audience at the end of the play. Your Place Is No Longer With Us is published in West Coast Plays and won a Bay Area Critics Circle Award for New Directions in Theater.
Review of BELLE
by Asha Richardson
If you think about a movie as a nice meal out, then BELLE was the type of dinner you would have enjoyed. It is the type of meal that leaves you feeling good and satisfied. You would tell your friends, you would leave a great review on Yelp and you would want to return again. Then later, when you return home, you realize you are still a bit hungry. You then look in your own fridge for a snack, and wonder… why am I still so hungry?
I enjoyed BELLE. It is a visually engaging film about a girl transitioning into womanhood, her quest for romance, her struggle for independence… oh and there’s some slavery going on somewhere and it’s bad.
If you are considering going to see it, you should. If you haven’t considered it, you should, because this film imagines the life of a woman who history has convinced us could never exist.
There are so few movies where Black women demand that their humanity is recognized, respected, and accepted. There are even fewer movies about the struggles of mixed-race black women, and NO movies about affluent black or mixed-race women in 1700s Great Britain.
Even more surprising, our protagonist is based on a real person. Dido Elizabeth Belle, documented by the 1779 painting of two beautifully-outfitted girls, one black, one white, who are depicted as equals.
Director Amma Asante brings this painting to life by imagining Dido’s struggle to find her place as a mixed-race woman in the upper-class white society in Britain.
Dido starts off as a quiet young woman whose acceptance of her position with her white family is made clear through her limited dialogue, quiet loneliness, and self-hate. After being introduced to the world outside the manicured lawns of the exclusive Kenwood estate, Dido begins to quietly question the status quo until she proudly creates her future. She speaks out of turn, and goes wherever she wants without permission. Our heroine is beautiful, intelligent, unstoppable, and without any flaw. Throughout the movie, her only flaw seems to be that she is half black, and she believes it is her only flaw until the end of the movie.
The issues Dido faces, and the era seem to be much more serious and dark than this movie depicts. The acting and writing sufficiently allowed me to empathize with Dido, but throughout this emotional journey I just never felt like she was in any real danger. I just cannot accept that she would be just fine and safe from harm during this era. It’s so difficult for me to accept that there were not more moments where she would be afraid, or scared. Regardless of any of the possible outcomes, I thought Dido would come out unscathed.
The really interesting story is the contrast between Dido and her white cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray—Dido’s companion in the painting. Together, Dido and Elizabeth flirt with ideas of love, gain and lose inheritance, and struggle to recognize their place as women. Lady Elizabeth Murray even states that when they marry, they will become their husbands’ property. She later continues that women must marry because they are not allowed to work or make a living. It was like the movie wanted to talk about gender inequality, but not really deal with feminism.
So which is worse? To be a poor white woman or a wealthy black woman? To be a poor white woman, or poor white man? I became frustrated that the movie highlighted issues around social inequality without diving deeper. Classism, racism, and sexism softly danced together throughout the movie, but I wanted them to fight.
This is the main reason there should be more movies like BELLE that take on the intersections of these inequalities. Perhaps, if there were more, one movie wouldn’t be so pressured to dive into so many different themes, and ask so many questions with little depth or answers. It was trying so hard to bring up so many issues, it felt light.
Overall, it was pretty predictable. About halfway through, I knew what would happen and how it would happen. However, I enjoyed the movie, and I would watch it again because it highlights issues that rarely make it to the box office. It’s also a beautiful film, with a wonderful cast. Gugu Mbatha-Raw did an amazing job portraying Dido. Her transformation from flustered lonely girl to a bold defiant woman was amazing. While the ending did not surprise me, thanks to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, I was so happy and excited for Dido. I also cannot leave out the costume and set design, every scene looked like a painting, capturing vignettes of what life looked like at that time.
The movie is light enough to allow white people to see a movie about black suffering, and for men to watch a movie about gender equality, without feeling guilty. And the movie gives black people (and all people) a black heroine, whose utter existence challenges history.
Asha Richardson is a recent graduate of Mills College, with a degree in Economics, a minor in Ethnic studies, and a passion for art. While in college, she co-founded Youth Radio’s App Lab (now Innovation Lab) where young people use technology for interactive story-telling. Asha has also produced commentaries and features for local and national outlets. She has a passion for the intersections of art, technology, and storytelling.