My roommate and I felt slightly out of place as the Bryant Park Hotel doorman directed us to an elevator that was violently painted red. We pressed a button that would take us to a mysterious lower level.
We got off and it was quiet. But, around the corner was a smiling employee, inviting us into a screening room. Next to the doorway was a table with boxes of popcorn and bottles of water. Many guests—myself included—took two of each.
The seating consisted of large and comfy leather couches (which was far better than the stiff and non tiered seating I was used to, thanks to AMC Loews). I expected an ambiance of professional gravitas, but the other guests were chatting loudly and happily while we waited for the film, Belle, to start.
This paradox of sophisticated informality remained throughout the experience, which certainly enhanced both the film and post-screening question-and-answer segment. The movie-watching experience is always better when the audience doesn’t withhold laughter or involuntary sounds of outrage at a character’s nasty behavior. Likewise, the questions and comments addressed to director Amma Asante and lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw were a balance of personal reactions and thought-provoking inquiries.
The bildungsroman-esque film Belle (opened May 2) follows Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw) in a rigid society as she attempts to find her place as a girl who is the daughter of both a black slave and an upper class white man. In the words of director Amma Asante, Dido must answer the question, “Who defines you? You or society?”
Unfortunately, Belle does not necessarily stand as strongly without the extensive and articulate answers Asante provided after our particular screening. The film was sometimes diluted at the expense of its PG rating. And although it focuses on the struggles of a half-black woman, it does not provide insights into the average black woman’s life in England at the time.
Many of the noteworthy aspects of the project were not revealed until the Q&A. Aside from her pleasantly strong female directorial presence, Asante’s research of the real Dido and her world was apparent. Character growth is heavily dependent on the development and outcome of the Zong case. At the time, Dido’s aforementioned great-uncle was the Lord Chief Justice of England. The case would be severely influential on future laws surrounding slavery and civil rights, which is clearly demonstrated and explained in the film.
Historical influence extends to the story of Dido in general—Asante was inspired by a postcard she received that portrayed a painting of the real Dido and her cousin Elizabeth. This painting, appropriately, is strongly present—just like the film itself, the painting depicts a black woman as dominant and attractive rather than the more common portrayal through submissive body language or the display of grotesque white idolization in similar artworks of 18th century England.
On the other hand, there are many aspects of the film itself that are refreshing. Although Belle may not be as raw as other films that involve race and slavery, this sometimes benefited the story and its themes. There were few stereotypical scenes that are sometimes common but perhaps not necessarily relevant to the plot of many 18th century period pieces (e.g.: sexual assault).
The perspective of a biracial person, let alone that of a woman, of this time is part of what makes this film so refreshing. Additionally, a main focus of the film is love—but as Asante puts it, Belle is a “dual love story.” There is the predicted handsome and open-minded gentleman that catches Dido’s eye (Matthew Goode), but there’s also a compelling friendship between Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). There’s even an interesting dynamic and development of the relationship between Dido and her adopted father figure, Dido’s great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson).
In the small screening room at Bryant Park Hotel, the audience’s enthusiastic cheers at Dido’s witty comebacks and disgusted gasps Lady Ashford’s (Miranda Richardson) hateful comments attests to the film’s contemporary qualities. In fact, Asante admits one of Lady Ashford’s more racist lines was inspired by her ex-mother-in-law (look for the scene in which Lady Ashford first meets Dido).
Belle is the first period piece to have a black female lead—even in modern films a majority of leading roles are white men. Asante tells a story worth telling and did the homework to make it as true—both historically and universally—as possible.
Belle is no masterpiece, but it is, nevertheless, a film we need.
By Zoe Halsne