Author: E. Museaux

Spoiler rating: ! (no spoilers)

In this period drama, we follow the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate, biracial daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a Royal Navy Captain. After the death of her mother, Captain Lindsay (Matthew Goode) brings his beloved young daughter to his aunt and uncle to raise, promising to send money to provide for her, a proposal to which the childless couple hesitantly agree. Her great-uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) raise not just Belle, but her cousin, Elizabeth, whom has been abandoned by her own father upon his remarriage.

Belle is loved by her great-aunt and uncle, and she and Elizabeth are like sisters, but despite her elevated social standing, and the immense wealth left to her by her father, nothing can change the fact that she is Black, and what this means. Belle has no peers within her race, as the few biracial men and women around her don’t come close to having her financial means, and her family doesn’t associate with Black people anyway, and despite her money, her Blackness means that her marriage prospects are slim to none.

Belle is a Black woman surrounded by claustrophobic whiteness in the form of family. Her aunt and uncle (Chief Royal Judge), while they have the financial means and social clout to be champions for all Black people, and thus ensure social equality for their great-niece, focus instead on avoiding the topic of her colour and simply giving their token negro as much “love” as they can without having to leave their comfort zones and alienating their slave-owning friends. As we watch Belle spiral deeper into loneliness and social isolation, we are also painted a vivid portrait of how white family members can emotionally blackmail biracial people into not speaking up on racial issues.

Belle is told to avert her eyes when she sees slaves, because that’s not her life, while being asked to dine separately when her family has company whom her presence would make uncomfortable. Even her father, who cared enough to give her financial security, spent his life looting the homeland of her mother, as well as several other African nations, to help build England’s wealth, and had conceived her with an enslaved woman, an abuse of authority akin to rape. Belle’s Blackness is so dismissed that we never even know her mother’s name.

Things come to a head when Belle does get a proposal, from a poor aristocrat, and her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) sets her eyes on the man’s brother, James Ashford (Tom Felton), whom is openly, visibly disgusted at Belle, yet tries to assault her privately. Belle’s dealings with James highlight how, for centuries, the Black woman’s body has been fetishized even by those who hate her. To make matters worse, Belle’s fiancé, whom she thinks loves her, only lusts after her body and her money.

When Belle tried to confront Elizabeth about her assault, Elizabeth all but says that such a thing is impossible because Belle is Black, it’s a stark reminder that, as much as her family would ignore the topic of race, they are never not aware that Belle is in fact Black, and would use her Blackness as a weapon against her. It also showcases how despite poverty and disownment, Elizabeth still felt that her whiteness made her superior to Belle. Their dynamic refutes the new adage that mixed children will “cure” racism, as all that has happened is that Belle can partake in financial privilege afforded her by her father’s wealth and name, while swallowing daily racial microaggressions from her family and open racism at the hands of their friends on a daily basis, with no on to commiserate to, as the only Black face she ever sees among the aristocracy which isn’t that of a servant, is her own.

Belle’s reprieve comes in the form of a young vicar’s son whom, although nowhere close to being a man of means, is outspoken on the foul institution of slavery and puts his intellect, time, and what little money he does have towards working for the goal of ending it. For the first time in her life, Belle meets someone who loves her not in spite of her Blackness, or lust after her because of it, but sees her as a full person, worthy of being fully acknowledged. This lights a fire under Belle to no longer be a passive spectator in her own life, but to fight for the future she could have, even if this means alienating her family in the process. As we learn, the only “cure” for racism is for families to openly discuss race and for those who have more of it, to protect those without and fight for their equality. The white privilege of Belle’s family isn’t transferable to her and never would be. This young woman’s quest to live life on her own terms is riveting and triumphant.

I give this one 4 stars.

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