Thursday, May 22, 2014

Belle (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Belle” Speaks of Equality and Romance

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

An odd painting used to hang in Kenwood House outside of London, a portrait of a proper English lady and standing beside her a beautiful woman of color wearing a feathered turban. That they were equals can be determined by the fact that they are pictured at the same eye-line. This 1779 neoclassical painting, attributed to Johann Zoffany, depicts Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth.

Dido was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsey, sent to live with his uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. Despite the girl’s ethnicity, Lord Mansfield raised her to be an aristocrat alongside her orphaned cousin.

What makes this interesting is that Mansfield served as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. And as such he was called upon to rule in the Somersett’s Case, a legal matter involving an escaped slave. Rather than recuse himself because of his ward Dido (technically, a slave because of her African mother), he ruled that “the state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political … it's so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.”

Abolitionists of the time took this to mean that slavery was abolished in England.

While Lord Mansfield’s ruling was a little vague, he did take the precaution of formally giving Dido Belle her freedom.

That aside, “Belle” -- the movie now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- spends more time examining Dido Belle’s romance with John Davinier. Actually a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman's steward, in the movie he’s said to be a lawyer. No wonder Lord Mansfield worried that she was marrying below her station.

Belle is portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (the beautiful actress who starred in TV’s short-lived “Undercovers” series). Tom Wilkerson (“In the Bedroom”) and Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”) take on the roles of Lord and Lady Mansfield. Miranda Richardson (“Damage”) is cast as Lady Ashford. Sarah Gadon (“Cosmopolis”) is seen as cousin Elizabeth. And Sam Reid (“The Railway Man”) has the part of John Davinier.

Director Amma Asante is herself a woman of color. Born in London to Ghanaian parents, she began her career on television as a child actress (BBC1’s long-running “Grange Hall”) but switched to the other side of the camera during her teens, becoming a screenwriter and producer. “Belle” is her second turn at directing a feature film.

Recently “Belle” was given a special showing at the United Nations as part of its commemorative events on the transatlantic slave trade. And Asante was picked by BAFTA as a Brit to Watch.

As for “Belle,” her life was an interesting paradox, that of an heiress and at the same time a social pariah … more due to her illegitimate birth than being black.

In the US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “All men are created equal,” yet he kept slaves. William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield gave an illegitimate slave girl her freedom and raised her as an aristocrat.

Apparently, equality is not as simple as appearing at eye level in a painting.

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