Everyone enjoys period dramas, as the success of Downton Abbey and many other shows and films will attest. It’s easy to understand why: gorgeous dresses and jewellery, great accents and the idea of a past that was “proper” and “civilised”.
Of course, there was never a magical time where everything was perfect and proper, when everyone spoke in perfect received English accents and married aristocrats. And the filmmakers behind Belle know this. While this film does a fantastic job of delivering on the trappings of period dramas – terrific costuming, refined accents, and romance a-plenty – there’s also another element that is perhaps less touched upon in period dramas: what life was like for the poorer, the lower class, and the non-white.
While America is better known for slavery, England also had its fair share, and Belle takes place at a time when the slave trade is powerful, but coming to an end. Dido Elizabeth Belle was a real woman born in 1761. The illegitimate child of Maria Belle, an African slave, and Captain John Lindsay, a British naval officer, Belle was raised by Lindsay’s uncle and aunt in Kenwood House as a free gentlewoman with her cousin, Elizabeth Murray. Lindsay’s uncle, William Murray was the first Earl of Mansfield, and the Lord Chief Justice of England at the time.
The filmmakers were inspired by the 1779 painting of Belle and Elizabeth, and accordingly, the film emphasises the process of the painting. The painting is famous for being one of the first European paintings to feature a black person and white person with equal eyelines, implying equal status. During the early parts of the film, the young Belle observes several paintings that feature subservient black subjects with a white person dominating, a motif that informs our understanding of how Belle sees herself in relation to her race. Belle and Elizabeth are equals in almost every way, and are all but sisters.
There’s a fun, light side to the film, which is pleasant, but it doesn’t shy away from illustrating the race-related issues experienced by the clearly mixed-race Belle, including some that are still relevant today (albeit to a lesser degree). Two of the Ashford brothers, whose family wants to “make a match” with the Murrays, demonstrate two mentalities still common today: one seeing Belle as ugly and beneath him, and one seeing her as “exotic” and beautiful “despite” her less civilised blood. The moments in which Belle is acutely aware that her skin colour and heritage mark her as lesser in the high society she would occupy given her father’s standing are honest, with an especially heart-wrenching scene in which she scrubs at her skin in an attempt to get rid of the colour.
I’m a bit weary of the love stories present in period dramas, but I also can’t deny that they’re a staple of the genre. It’s also true that there is a lack of black women (and women of colour more generally) as romantic leads, so while I’m sort of over the dramatic love story culminating in the dramatic declaration of love and kiss, it was totally worth it.
Rather than simply finding love, Belle also gets involved in a case William is presiding over – the real life Zong massacre. The crew of the slave ship Zong had thrown around 140 slaves overboard, claiming there wasn’t enough water for everyone, and made a claim to their insurers. In a little bit of movie magic, Belle’s future husband, Charles Davinier features as a lawyer (upgraded from his real life occupation as a steward), who is also involved in the case.
It’s rare to see such a rounded depiction of a black woman in a period drama, and Belle does well to deliver a nuanced, thoughtful portrayal of a historical figure, while adding in just enough of that fairytale drama that we all want from period dramas.
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