Director: Amma Asante
Key Actors: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon, Sam Reid
MPAA Rating: PG
Synopsis: Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is a bi-racial woman living in 18th century England. The daughter of a British Admiral and black woman, she is raised by her uncle, Chief Lord Justice Mansfield, alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray. She is simultaneously an aristocrat and outcast.
Overall Rating: 4 Stars
This is one of those films. A historical story that makes you wonder how much is true, and how much is the imagination of the writers. Even the most basic search will tell you that a lot of what occurred in the film was not true, or at least not true in the span of years depicted in the film. Nonetheless, it is a great story and the painting that inspired it is worth the clamor.
Bechdel: Belle passed the Bechdel Test, unsurprisingly. Once again we find that when female directors and writers are involved, the movie passes. What is fantastic about this particular film is, not only did it pass, but conversations surrounded politics and life’s realities. Eighteenth century women discussing politics? No way!
Treatment of Women: The treatment of women in this film is loaded. Given that this film takes place in the 18th century, it is unsurprising that there are many horrifying aspects, such as one man refusing to marry a woman because she has no money. And the whole “coming out season” so popular at the time is stiflingly dreadful. But, that was a reality so to ignore it would be idiotic. There is a scene in which the character Elizabeth Murray explains to Dido that to be a woman is to be owned because without the security of a marriage, women are nothing. That explains well enough how women were generally treated at the time.
Despite the historical awfulness, women were treated well in this film. Belle–or Dido as she is called in the movie–is a driven, intelligent, interesting protagonist. Dido has the double-whammy of being both a woman and black in a time where even one of those traits was a disadvantage, yet she forges her own path. Dido isn’t cowed and proves as much time and again, even speaking up to the uncle who raised her–the Chief Lord Justice, I might add.
Let’s count the ways Dido rocks:
-When she stands up to her uncle
-When she defies her uncle’s wishes by researching and becoming involved in the Zong case
-When she declares, “I have a voice,” to the wretched woman who sees Dido’s skin before all else
-When she stands up for herself when an icky man gropes her
-When she sneaks out of the house to attend meetings and to spend time with Mister Davinier
-When she and her cousin are best friends, despite different backgrounds (major plot point, not just a single moment)
One of the most important details–if not the most important detail–is Dido’s fear of being painted. All her life she has seen portraits that, if they include any black subjects, feature black people as subservient, always looking wonderingly at the glorious white subjects. So when her uncle decides to have Dido’s and Elizabeth’s portrait done, she is terrified. In the end, the two cousins are painted as equals, both in affection and status. Thus the inspiration for the film, for this painting is one aspect of the film that is absolutely real.
Overall, this is a great film. There were multiple times while I watched that I thought, “That is absolutely disgusting,” in reference to a racist or sexist conversation taking place. While those moments are infuriating and heartrending, they teach lessons we need to always remember. And it is absolutely wonderful to see a film depicting a female character whose worth is not reduced to her body or sex appeal.