This utterly magnificent film will bring tears to your eyes as you grasp who we are as a people, and how we got here.
Just like I noted in last year’s 12 Years a Slave, Director Amma Asante’s Belle forces all of us to relive a moment in history that we would rather forget. While various political groups today attack food stamps and raising the minimum wage as simply encouraging a large percentage of our black citizens to embrace poverty, they continue to forget government’s recent role in forcibly enslaving their ancestors and in the process destroying their necessary connection to society.
With Belle, we revisit 1783 when England was forced to confront its embrace of slavery. It seems that a British ship stocked with slaves jettisoned them overboard under a fabricated excuse designed to collect insurance money. In the process, England had to look into its own soul, something that its rebellious colonies in North America were going to ignore for the next 80 years.
While the top jurist in England, Lord Mansfield, wrestled with the impending legal decision, he and his wife were also raising two nieces. One was Belle, a mixed race daughter of a nephew who had died years earlier. In the process, Mansfield not only had to legally confront the treatment of blacks in the New World, but also the legal restrictions placed on those like his black niece living in England.
Tom Wilkenson and Emily Watson are stunning as Lord and Lady Mansfield. Though both were dedicated to following accepted legal standards, they witnessed firsthand how their niece, Belle, was treated like a second class citizen in their own home.
The captivating Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Belle, and she brings the same force to this film that Lupita Nyong’o did in her unforgettable, Oscar-winning performance in the above-referred to 12 Years a Slave. Ms. Mbatha-Raw is as emotionally powerful as she is beautiful, and she tries to honor her adopted parents without abandoning her past.
In the process, she develops a powerful kinship with the Mansfield’s adopted white niece, Elizabeth. Played magnificently by Sarah Gadon, the two young girls reflect a future that England’s power brokers want to keep locked in a dark government basement.
Race issues in England are played out for all to see as the Mansfields interrelate socially with the Ashfords, a powerful family with more influence than they deserved. Miranda Richardson is startling as the hateful Lady Ashford, a woman who wants both a title and wealth for her two sons as long as it does not involve interaction with the lowly negro. Her sons reflect her racism without apologies, and it is impossible to feel the slightest sympathy for any of them.
What stirs the film at its climax is the interrelationship of John Davinier, a committed son of a Vicar who is a budding lawyer, with the Mansfield family. Played with grace and style by Sam Reid, he is fighting to help Lord Mansfield understand the tyranny at the heart of slavery. In the process, he and Belle fall madly in love, and they join the struggle to find equality and themselves.
Belle is based on a true story, and I can only ask all of you to imagine if she had a descendent known today as Barack Obama. As I watch the startling amount of vitriol thrown at our President daily by the largely white male leaders of the opposition party, I wonder if Belle would have seen anything different than what existed in her day.
Clearly, we all know that racism is alive in this country today. Look at that idiot rancher in the West who rallied Sean Hannity and his crew at Fox News to his side until revealing that he wanted to return “Negroes to the plantation where they would be happier.” Think of the multimillionaire NBA owner Donald Sterling, and a question remains as to why leaders of the Republican Party don’t simply decry racism as a basis for opposing our President. Quite frankly, their continual silence speaks a thousand words.
While many of those who embrace “family values” condemn a President who is in a wonderful marriage raising two beautiful, intelligent daughters, they simultaneously embrace people like Newt Gingerich and Rush Limbaugh who have been married a combined 7 times. What if one of the President’s daughters was named Belle?
The poor don’t want a higher wage just to justify being poor any more than major corporations are moving overseas to escape Federal taxes. If we really want to make an important contribution to the legacy of slavery still playing out today, then let’s get the government involved and have full-time schools in our major metropolitan areas through the 12th grade.
Feed these kids, clothe these kids and provide intense leadership that has all but been ignored since slavery ended in 1865. Good grief, most individuals serving time in prison for committing acts of violence are school dropouts, and I know that personally from years as a criminal defense attorney. Belle teaches us the simple principle that you find beauty in the eyes of all babies of any color, and the Federal government has an obligation to help them succeed.
Belle was able to find a passionate man who was committed to her and a joint cause, but not everyone is that lucky. There are millions of young African-Americans like Belle who need assistance today, and it’s time for all of us to play a role.