Belle gives Britain’s anti-slavery movement the Masterpiece treatment
C

Belle gives Britain’s anti-slavery movement the Masterpiece treatment

C

Belle

Director: Amma Asante
Runtime: 104 minutes
Rating: PG
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Reid

For the average viewer, “costume drama” evokes brightly lit, museum-quality drawing rooms filled with people in waistcoats and hoopskirts, who stand around like mannequins and speak a strange, stiff variant of English in which every other sentence starts with “indeed.” What they are imagining, in other words, is a movie like Belle, a slice of Masterpiece Theatre cheese in which a biracial heiress makes her way through 18th-century English society while her guardian tries an insurance fraud case involving a slave ship.

The heiress is Dido Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of an English admiral and a former slave, and her guardian is Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), her great uncle and a prominent figure in English law. It’s sort of a true story. The historical Dido wasn’t actually entitled to the Lindsay name, and her father left her nothing when he died, instead splitting his fortune between his other, white illegitimate children. Furthermore, her mother was never emancipated, which, legally speaking, made Dido a slave.

This raises a question: Why make a movie about the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the British Empire and then take significant steps to soften the circumstances of black people at the time? Dido’s London debut plays out against Lord Mansfield’s participation in the Zong case, which the movie conflates with his ruling in the earlier Somerset v. Stewart, which established that slavery couldn’t be practiced on British soil. The problem is that the Zong case—in which a ship’s crew murdered nearly 150 slaves—found Mansfield ruling that slaves, though technically human, should be considered insurable cargo, similar to livestock, and could be dumped overboard in the event of spoilage. The movie essentially offloads all of the racism and sexism of the 18th century onto one character, the cartoonish James Ashford (Tom Felton, who is really starting to look like Jonathan Pryce). The rest come across more as social blunderers (many variations on “Good heavens, a Negro!” are exclaimed) than bigots.

This effectively turns a story about race into a story about rank, with the wealthy Dido falling for poor vicar’s son John Davinier (Sam Reid), much to the consternation of strict, but loving, Lord Mansfield. Occasionally, emotions break through the film’s surface, like pimples. One of the film’s sadly underdeveloped through-lines involves Dido seeing reflections of herself in the images of black people—paintings, signs, leaflets—that surround her. At another point, she claws at her neck, trying to rip off her skin while sitting in front of a vanity. These aren’t exactly profound insights, but at least they feel invested with feeling and informed by some kind of lived experience. The same can’t be said of the trusty servants, kindly aristocrats, and drawn-curtain carriage rides that populate Belle, as they do countless other films that treat history as though it were a genre. 

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