We had waited patiently, knowing that what was in our minds would one day come to fruition. We had waited patiently for nowhere had we ever been portrayed in the way we know us to be. Not any of our models, actresses, icons, or role-models anywhere, had ever been captured the way we knew they should have been. None had ever received the treatment, that of adoration, that which captivates, that which brings to life the delicate and rare flower that resides within. Of course there had been the ordinary. Patronizing and often condescending portrayals of sexiness, glamour, power, strength, some better than others. But we had never been able to find the words for what was missing, until they were said by Amma Asante, Director of the film Belle.
Asante said, “I wanted to put a woman of colour on screen with visual value, with mental and psychological value, and not have anything that would take away from that…” Value, mental and psychological, is what Asante gave us in her film about Dido Elizabeth Belle. Greater still, in creating Belle, Asante also gave us, long suffering women of color who have been consistently disappointed in our portrayal, a portrait of ladylike elegance, refinement and grace heretofore unseen in cinema or mediums of any kind. She gave to us an era, a time and place – eighteenth century aristocracy – from which we had always presumed to have been excluded. This may be the next important event to have occurred for us since Michelle Obama became First Lady.
Belle is a gorgeous film with all the storybook details of Jane Austen, except it tells the more important story of the British slave trade, by way of the Zong Massacre trial. The trial was presided over by Lord Mansfield, in which 142 diseased African slaves were thrown off a ship, the Zong, in 1781 – worth more dead, with an insurance payout, than alive. The insurers refused to pay. Lord Mansfield meanwhile, is also the guardian of his niece Dido, a mixed race child who’s mother was a slave. For the most part she is raised with the same education, introduction to society and status as her cousin who Lord Mansfield also cares for. We would have been more than pleased simply leaving this film with visuals of the beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido.
But sometimes the camera and the story telling serve as vehicles to draw out the exquisite beauty, of its subject the way artists in other mediums do. The camera was there to draw out the character’s full value, as Asante said. And so she did. From Dido’s regal stride, the arch in her back, the length of her neck, the softness of her curls, the delicacy of her complexion, her cultured ways, her refinement, her essence as a lady, no detail was spared in conveying, lineage, status, breeding. But more remarkable, was Dido’s strong sense of pride in her African lineage and a desire for the life and privilege she was awarded to be shared by the African slaves from which she came. As she starts to question the laws that allow her privilege, yet limit her future, the Zong Massacre Trial, serves as an opportunity to change the world. Lord Mansfield was instrumental in bringing about the end of the British slave trade, an act one cannot help but attribute to his own black bloodline.
Once Asante offers us the rewards of Dido’s refinement and grace, she does not allow it to be snatched away with a romance not befitting Dido’s status. Her husband-to-be is an abolitionist lawyer and their romance also becomes her political awakening.
Belle is a very satisfying film and for us vindication. We knew the need was urgent, for a black woman to show up in this way and it turns out that desire was not ours alone. In addition to our own gushing, proud and elevated response to the film, we witnessed that of other black movie goers as well. Gugu Mbatha-Raw has said to have experienced the same from fans who have thanked her for what she has given them.
Amma and Gugu, the breadth of our gratitude is infinite, your service indescribable. The best we may do for you is to share everywhere we can the gift of Belle….