Even though I love getting lost in the world of a costume drama — sumptuous fabrics, whispered intentions, heaving bosoms restricted by corsets, earnest declarations of love — these movies seldom love me back. But Belle is different.
From the ruffled skirts and knowing glances of Amadeus to the wicked witticisms and powdered wigs of Dangerous Liaisons, for years I have been seduced into time-traveling through the screen, into worlds I never could have been a part of. Stories set in a left-behind past — Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Elizabeth, Vanity Fair, Shakespeare in Love, Stage Beauty, Downton Abbey — continue to have a hold on me, although, as a woman of color, my kind is seldom represented in the narrative. (Unless you count Gone With the Wind, a different can of potatoes.) But I have imagined what it would be like to see a brown face framed by a Madame de Pompdour curls, to see a brown woman not as the slave or servant but as the object of affection. In many ways, Belle (which opens today in New York and L.A. and will hit more cities next week) is a dream come true. (Full disclosure: I saw the movie twice at screenings organized by Fox Searchlight.)
Based on a true story and impeccably cast, Belle is set in 18th century England, and follows a little girl, Dido Belle Lindsay, who is the illegitimate daughter of a black woman (about whom we know very little) and a British navy captain from an aristocratic family. Dido (played by the luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is sent to be raised by her great-uncle the Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson); her close-in-age cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) becomes like a sister to her. But when Dido is old enough to "come out," and be presented to the peerage as an eligible young woman for a respectable gentleman to marry, she finds she faces many obstacles and predicaments, involving love, money, social standing, and her skin color.
Belle doesn't just deal with one love story; there are several: The love between a man a woman, the love between sisters, a father's love for his daughter, and a woman learning to love herself. As these narratives are deftly woven together, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield happens to be involved in a case that has the potential to end slavery. So there's romance, sure, but also history, politics, questions of ethics and courtroom drama. All told in a way that reaches into your chest, squeezes your heart and wrings it right out.
But truly, director Amma Asante has presented me — and millions of people like me — a gift: The costumes, the romance, the drama we love — with the intriguing, fulfilling twist we need. As Mark Olsen at the LA Times puts it:
The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle is portrayed as one of a quietly revolutionary spirit, one woman fighting simply to be herself and recognized as such by society. The movie "Belle" is in some way driven by the same impulses, with three women of color in key roles as director, writer and star, putting an inclusive, socially conscious spin on the romantic costume drama.
It's worth noting that while it may be rare to see a black woman playing an aristocrat in a period piece, there's no way Dido Belle's true story is actually rare. Human history is full of all kinds of untold stories — interracial love, black queens, Asian spies, Latina women at war. Without the people passionate about the stories telling them — without women writing the scripts and directing the films — they earn little attention. But the truth is: Those stories are universal. As much as I loved the tender sweetness of Belle, and felt it deeply resonate with me as a black woman, at its core, it's a movie for anyone. The issues at its heart — of felling like an outsider, of forming your identity, of finding your voice — are ones we can all relate to. Beautiful dresses and settings are a bonus. I honestly hope that this movie gets the attention it deserves, that women (and men!) who love a good costume romance story will show up for Belle.
As Asante tells Dame Magazine:
I'm a girl, and I'm unashamedly a girl, and I love period dramas. I love the color, the beauty that you can bring. But there was another important factor in this, that apart from proving I could tell a traditional period drama with a black girl at the lead, I wanted to prove, with a black woman behind the scenes, that, look, we can do this. We have the capabilities. We have the skills to tell these stories, and so it was important for me to make it as beautiful, as lush, as sweeping as it could possibly be so nobody could ever say, "Well, it's not a real period drama, is it? It doesn't really remind me of Austen or 'Pride and Prejudice' or any of those things." I wanted it to have the quality of those movies, and I think it does.
Images via Fox Searchlight.