I never saw Belle when it first came out coz I thought it looked gash. But since seeing it analysed in The Psychosis of Whiteness, I’ve been a little interested in what the complete piece looked like. And tonight it was being shown as part of Black History Month with a panel from CRER to provide some much needed context.
To be honest, this was the best way to see it, in an audience fully aware of its inadequacies, and treating it as Jane Austen fanfic more than anything approaching historical truth. Everyone booed the baddies, clapped the goodies, and gave a fierce snap whenever an eviscerating line was laid down. Treating it as escapist fantasy with a black female lead is probably the best way to watch this.
In some ways, I don’t know what to really add to what you can probably imagine about Belle just from watching the trailer. It is very loosely based on the life of the real Dido Belle, the biracial daughter of a Scottish aristocrat and an enslaved African woman, acknowledged despite illegitimacy, and raised in her father’s family estate. But I imagine all resemblance to the actual life of Dido Belle ends about there. Directed by one of the few Black British female filmmakers out there, it is understandable to want to make a happy story full of romance and courtroom drama and period costume, that reflects the little girls who adore this genre and are Black. But maybe if there were more Black British female filmmakers out there, who were allowed to make big budget films with Black British female leads, this film could be allowed to settle amiably into the period drama romance genre without needing to, being criticised for, and ultimately failing to fulfil a story which is made to carry such weight in terms of representation of racism in British society.
Much like I spent the duration of North and South shouting at the television, “Bastard! Bastard!”, and cheered when the strikers looked to be about to stone to death the capitalist cuntoes, so too did I spend the entirety of Belle with a sharp smirk at every white person, muttering under my breath, “Wow, what a hero(!)”. Seriously fuck all these people. This is another movie in which white people use the only black character as an opportunity to grow and learn. This film is barely about Belle, it’s about the uncle who raises her, and is eventually persuaded to act like less of an arsehole about having a biracial ward. Belle is merely a mirror for the white characters to see themselves in and congratulate themselves on what they see.
It is, of course, totally whitewashed and sanitised, with the actual suffering of black people erased. Slavery is discussed but never seen. The court case Belle’s defacto father presides over is about the murder of 130 African slaves, but the names of these people is never used or known. Belle’s mother is entirely absent from the film, and no one even thinks to ask whether there was consent between her father, an aristocratic naval officer, and her mother, an enslaved woman.
I didn’t go see this first time round because I knew it would stick in my craw. So I recommend only watching it as escapist fantasy. Maybe pair it with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Know that what you are seeing is Black representation within the British tradition, and a challenge to absolutely nothing.