Monday, May 11, 2015

"Belle" Director Amma Asante Proves: What is Right Can Never Be Impossible

 Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her sister-cousin exhibited at Scone Palace in Scotland
In 1761, Dido Elizabeth Belle was born the daughter of a British slave and Captain Sir John Lindsay.  She was raised by aristocratic grandparents with the privileges afforded one of noble blood. What makes this story so incredible is that her beloved grandfather was the justice of the appeals court that officiated an insurance dispute by the captain of the slave ship Zong  - a case that may have led to the emancipation of British slaves.

Writer/Director Amma Asante makes Dido’s story acceptable to mainstream audiences by dressing it up as a lavish historical costume drama, embroidered with romance, its delicate fabric interwoven with threads of relevant themes.

When Belle’s sister-cousin comes out in society, her grandparents entertain suitors.  Dido (Gugu Mabatha-Raw) is prohibited from dining with the rest of the family due to her position in society as a black woman. For the first time, Belle questions her position in society. She asks her Papa (Tom Wilkinson), “How can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with my family?”  He explains that it is the nature of order. There is an interesting dichotomy here.  Belle recognizes the injustice of that rule. But that very evening, she admonishes the vicar’s son John for breaking social etiquette by speaking directly to her - the lady of the house - when he is of a lower social standing.  Formed by her privileged upbringing, Belle upholds the very social hierarchy that suppresses her.

The vicar’s son John (Sam Reid) arrives to study law under her grandfather, the justice of the appeal court.  Dido overhears a case that her Papa is trying in which a slave ship captain is suing the insurance company for the cost of the slaves that he threw overboard to reserve water for himself and the crew.  This lights a fire in Dido to learn more about the injustices of her people.  Dido is inspired by the law student as he challenges their social system by standing up for the drowned slaves.

To shelter Dido, her grandfather forbids John from speaking to her. He encourages her to marry a gentleman for his family name to preserve her rank. This is another interesting dichotomy, as the judge is expected to rule on the merits of the case on the basis that the slaves are property or cargo, while he fights to maintain his beloved Dido’s place in society. Meanwhile, Dido’s sister--cousin is having difficulty securing a husband because she didn't inherited her father’s fortune. She realizes that ladies aren't allowed to work to earn money, nor can they inherit it if they have a brother. So essentially they are property. Everyone in this society is enslaved by the confines of their class.

While “Belle” is set in 18th century Britain, it shines a light on important issues of our time. There are parallels between Britain’s class system and our own. In America, class is distinguished by the distribution of wealth. There is a great divide when CEOs are paid $10,000 an hour, yet refuse to pay workers a living wage of $10. While Britain’s colonial economy relied on the slave trade, our market-based economy relies on paying slave wages. The lower class competes for poverty wages because the other jobs have been sent overseas where we exploit starving children and the destitute.  Right here in America, the people who harvest our food work brutal 13 hour days on an empty stomach. That brings up the question: Do we really have to exploit desperate people to show a profit?  Are we enslaved by a system that values profit over human life?

When I post a meme on Facebook to create awareness and inspire action, inevitably a “well-meaning” friend will leave a comment that there is nothing we can do, that it has always been that way. Their comments not only deflate the cause, but make me feel hopeless and powerless. That is one of the reasons I love the movie “Belle;” It inspires hope with its theme, “What is right can never be impossible.”  The movie (and history) proves this thesis. In the 18th century,  Britain’s economy was based on the slave trade.  While we had to fight a war to end slavery, Britain passed a law to abolish it. And their economy didn't come crashing down.

What was the driving force? Amma Asante's thesis is that it is was love. Belle assures her grandfather that he is brave. When he argues that there are rules in place that dictate how we live, she counters with, “You break every rule when it matters enough, Papa.  I am the proof of that.”

Amma Asante was empowered by her (sur)name sake, the Ghanaian warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa, to overcome great obstacles to get, “Belle” to the screen.  This low budget costume drama became a surprise hit grossing $104,493 on opening weekend.

“Belle” is proof that, “What is right can never be impossible.” 

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

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