Belle (UK, 2013)

Black belle

Although the inspiration for the film isn’t simply the above painting, where the bi-racial Belle is depicted with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, the presence of a woman of colour in an aristocratic household in late 18th England is the core enigma of the film. The household is headed by Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who, as Lord Chief Justice, made some judgements that helped in the abolition of slavery. Scriptwriter Misan Sagay melodramatically places one of the key decisions with Belle’s ‘coming out in society’ although, in fact, she was actually a young child at this time. This melodramatic narrative serves to highlight the racial discourse that is central to the film.

Director Amma Asante, whose A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) also unearthed, superbly, hidden history about race, stated:

“You see a biracial girl, a woman of colour, who’s depicted slightly higher than her white counterpart. She’s staring directly out, with a very confident eye. This painting flipped tradition and everything the 18th century told us about portraiture. What I saw was an opportunity to tell a story that would combine art history and politics.” (link)

That’s not how I see it. To me they look level in the frame, though Belle’s turban is marginally higher; this equality in itself would have been a radical statement at the time. Belle also looks as if she is being pushed away and Elizabeth dominates two thirds of the frame. However if it is a push it’s certainly not aggressive given the smiling faces of both. Even though Belle is only filling a third of the frame she is the dynamic actor, moving on and in the direction of the city; St Paul’s can be seen in the background. Elizabeth is inhabiting a more domestic space that, even though she is outside, is enclosed and darker.

Belle’s finger pointing to her face is puzzling (there are theories in the article quoted above). The most obvious interpretation is she’s drawing attention to her colour; if this is the case it is doing it in an extraordinarily modern way as it is a hyperbolic gesture that serves only to emphasise the obvious. It’s almost ‘cheesy’.

Both women engage the viewer’s gaze with confidence; they are not there for the male gaze they are for themselves. It is an extraordinary painting; as far as I can tell, it’s not known who created the image.

The film is fascinating too and although it may lean a little too far toward crowd pleasing narrative resolutions that can be forgiven as it’s telling a fabulous tale. It’s a stellar cast, including Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, which is headed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is superb as Belle.

I am looking forward to Asante’s next film.

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June 8th