Thursday, May 29, 2014

Belle: Amma Asante's Sumptuous Masterpiece Explores Forbidden Love And Acceptance In Various Ways

Belle film poster.
"Love must be a complicated thing."

Well, it certainly didn't have to be. Love can be the easiest, most naturally occurring emotion.  It's acceptance that's the more apocalyptic battle. 

Belle is a must see riveting period drama that teaches the paramount value of both love and acceptance-- the parallels are uniquely woven. Amongst opulent London backdrops and lavish scenery, blending together solid womenly friendships, racial prejudice, and forbidden romance, director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay combine history of a remarkable realistically rendered oil painting alongside true account of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay- an Afro-European abolitionist showcasing Harriet Tubman like heroism and compassion. A compelling instrument that ties it all together are the relationships Dido forms along her journey to self-acceptance- taboo relationships that were nonetheless frowned upon. 

Born and raised under aristocratic privilege, Dido is the illegitimate bi-racial daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay. Dido's adoring father showcases paternal devotion-- the first male to fall in love with her on screen, showing her firsthand that it is the easiest emotion to feel. This acknowledgment is powerful

"You look just like your mother."

This proves apparent affection not only for Dido, but for the woman who birthed her. He sees beautiful offspring deserving to be raised of sacred birthright and leaves his child with his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield, pleading with utmost conviction for them to love and nurture her. Although no one is exactly thrilled that she is “black,” they begrudgingly agree. For Sir John Lindsay to then make her an heiress further proves that unconditional, parental endearment. Dido grows up, privileged and forms a powerful bond with her cousin Elizabeth- longest and most lovely relationship Dido has ever known. They laugh, play, and learn together, affectionately holding hands and passionately declaring inseparability. One of nine films that passed the Bechdel Test this year, Asante's film fervently illustrates beguiling closeness between these two women. Dido and Elizabeth's controversial yet synchronous devotion to one another is soon a driving force behind commissioned portrait.Vibrant backdrop to endearing friendship is a significant key, a factor that must be applauded. Having a portrait painted meant not only vast wealth and influence, but it also gave an acceptable validation to Dido- that she was loved by her family and by Elizabeth, half owner to her gracious heart.

Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) and Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) have a close relationship.
Except familial love had to be hidden whenever visitors come to the Mansfield home. Dido must dine in the parlor- away from guests. It is a rule she grows accustomed to. Yes, her family shows courtesy and admiration, but society dictates all, including whom one chooses to eat meals. It is unfortunate that their love cannot stand up to such stupendous rules. The snobby, upper crust Ashfords are no exception. One brother lustily eyes Dido with impervious provocation while the other cannot contain disdainful contempt, stating rather nastily that someone of Dido's skin tone suits for cotton field dalliance in the West Indies. Yes, sexual conquests and nothing more. Rather irksome. One cannot help but wish saliva could turn into venom and spit it at such a callous bastard.

Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)  is uncomfortable in her skin.
A rather depressing scene finds Dido sitting alone, saddened, peering into elegant oval mirror. She pinches and grabs frantically at brown hued hands and face, wanting desperately to “remove”shame. It defines demeaning hardships living with being different- the wrong shade of different and reflects lack of self-love. She longs to erase brown tint, to become populated, civilized fairer skinned- more cherished “English rose” setting high impossible to reach beauty standard. Surrounded by many luxurious, pretty objects, but inadequate in her own natural born skin, Dido's frustration is a powerful outcry for acceptance in an society blatantly celebrating racism. Although short, this visceral act of self-inflicted violence causes the viewer to take definite notice. Her struggle must be endured each day and night. The glaring subjection still remains a deep seated issue today. The role of African descendents appears to always be the entertaining Negro that knows all the right English words and proper mannerisms, catering to whims, displayed as an entertaining creature meant to be an stage performer instead of interacting in human society. One cannot forget that even as slavery eventually abolished, those with an ounce of Africanism DNA were not considered one hundred percent human. The astonished stares and perverse whispers cast in Dido's direction incite anguish. Impervious gawking both offensive and rude, white prestige are grossly intrigued by "Manfield's Negro," watching her like she embodies a freak show. However, Dido ignores critics, manages to bear turmoil, head up high. I am especially proud of how Dido gives snark back to Lady Ashford who more than deserves witty slap to her haughty pedestal.

Lord Mansfield's racially charged war is thrown at Dido's feet by passionate rebel thinker John Davinier.

Dido's (Gugu Mbartha-Raw) pompous world is turned upside down by John Davinier (Sam Reid).
He educates Dido and opens her eyes to the brutal barbaric ugliness of slavery. She reads eye opening notes that uncovers glaring truths Lord Mansfield has shunned from her. Slaves bound together, starved and thirsty, thrown overboard for profit. These horrendous allegations propel Dido's fury to see justice served. Lord Mansfield has deliberately smoothed over the hardcore honesty of the world, hiding atrocities that shouldn't exist. Dido is an intelligent woman who sees everything. Not just in ways of learned mannerisms like language and piano playing, she is aware that blackness isn't tolerable via in real life and depicted art.
"We are no better than paintings."

Realities simply cannot be tucked away forever. As an adult, Dido had every right to know. She isn't some stoic individual. She often spoke up about issues that mattered-- issues that certainly weren't learned between speaking eloquent Latin and French. I also believed studying the truth behind art gave another education. Art isn't solely about talent, mechanical prowess, and pretty frames to match drapes, art also provided subtle honesty about the orders of life. In the scenes where Dido glances at pieces, at times without dialogue, viewers know precisely where her thoughts are.

Belle (Gugu Raw-Mbartha) cannot hide her curiosity over Mabel (Bethan Mary-James). Also pictured Elizabeth (Sarah Gabor).

Dido meets Mabel, a free slave who works at the Mansfield residence as a maid. Dido turns into a casual observer, studying the woman. Over breakfast, Dido confronts her family over Mabel and slavery. Lady Mansfield blows up, believing these to be vulgar topics to discuss at breakfast. Wow. Human lives masqueraded as cargo could be descendents of Dido's past, relations that she doesn't get the opportunity to know and cherish. Mabel becomes a whole different bonding experience with Dido, setting forth another loving, accepting relationship outside jurisdiction of appeasing male ego. Dido struggles with kinky tresses and Mabel comes to aide, teaching her to comb from the ends. It is an endearing scene that ignites my own memories of struggling to appreciate strands and finding those who love it too. Once rare, now acceptance is vastly growing worldwide for the almighty afro. Mabel's caring, patient comb is just the beginning. She will be not only a maid- but a secret keeper of Dido's missions to see Davinier and his band of revolutionaries. Poetic regard that she shares this with Mabel and not Elizabeth-- who probably wouldn't understand Dido's roguish behavior. I see this vigilante justice as not only Dido's, but her gift to Mabel and others like them-- that side of herself that she grows to validate. Why should Dido have esteem? Why should Mabel be one of few to be "free?" I then imagined that while everyone left the house- Dido and Mabel played dress up prior to pub rendezvous. Mabel got a chance to get out of dowdy wardrobe and lived fantasy prestige, decked out in designer corsets and posh jewels. I am surely not alone in that. I hope.

Stupid prospects of suitors and marriage eventually begin to suck the life out of Dido and Elizabeth's earlier sisterly camaraderie. It's a thorn to the side, but it happens. A woman has to marry. Not for love, of course. To combine family wealth together and make heirs. Under flaring jealousy, tempers incite and hurtful words are exchanged. Elizabeth is a poor relation and Dido, an heiress, cannot marry due to her unacceptable skin tone. Thankfully, they made up because that nonsense (though logical) was killing me. Ha.

However, after Lord Mansfield throws the gable down to the right side of things, blackness fades on Dido and John. Although, my romanticist heart celebrated their chance to love one another freely, the final type of amour Dido receives, I cannot help but wonder if Dido ever looked back into the mirror and said, "I love you, Self. Brown skin and kinky hair and brown eyes and full lips and everything in between." That was a missing piece that needed insertion. The late great Maya Angelou said:
" I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me, ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt."
Did Dido love who she was inside and out? Accept herself? Or was Davinier her sole savior in seeing the beauty within? Perhaps so. I just preferred to see film end that way or at least give a glimpse into how Dido's perceptions shifted.

The famous painting of Dido and Elizabeth showcases their love and affection towards one another, a close bond depicted well in the film.
However, Belle is a visualized dream seeming to have been majestically stolen from my very own thoughts, a dream that impresses childhood fascination. A brown skinned woman dressed in fancifully designed, lacy, bow adorned, colorful ball gowns, wearing resplendent jewelry fit for a princess brings any period Disney film to shame. If only Princess and the Frog took this route. Words cannot begin to express the sentimental nature of Asante's gift. For the film is more than a glorious account of one woman's desire to see ancestors set free. It showcases a woman deserving love and respect.

 In Indiewire, Asante states:
When you see the real painting, which is at Scone Palace where Lord Mansfield was born, there’s more depth, you can see right to the back of the painting. And I got so much from it. The way Elizabeth is touching Dido, the way Dido is pointing at herself and looking straight at the painting, I wanted that to be her landing place, where she ends up. Once she’s combined this idea of being half daughter of slave, half daughter of aristocrat, half black, half white, all these seemingly contradictory terms, she has to combine and accept, and say "I’m ok with who I am. I’m bloody different from everyone I know, but I’m ok with that." I always say, this isn’t a Cinderella story, this isn’t rags to riches, this is a story of a girl who was loved, but has to teach people the right way to love her, the way she needs to be loved. So I took as much as I could from the painting, and then focused on the research as well.
I have it in mind that I will see this painting. I will. This piece of art commemorates womenly friendships in such a radiant light. We don't see racial prejudice or disdain. We don't see society dictating placement. We see two women who love one another intimately, familiarly.  Not incestuous or lesbian love, but an ardent, accepting love.

In her first period piece, standout Gugu Mbatha-Raw exhibited a versatile array of emotion as a woman torn between two worlds- European privilege and African ancestry. Mbatha-Raw must helm more of this purely white genre, breaking racial prejudice, setting foot into perhaps popular Jane Austen arena. One cannot help but wonder if Tom Felton was chosen due to his venerable sneering capability and the fact that one of his famous roles, Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter series included abhorrent dislike of Mudbloods- mixed magical folk.

Still, Asante shepherding Dido's story brings forth an inspiring hope for more to come. Only her second film, this BAFTA Award winning former actress, producer, and director is breaking new ground. Everyone is cheering her on. Palm Springs Film Festival named her a Director to Watch and she's won the Signis Award at the Miami Film Festival. Profound ladies like Terry McMillon are singing her praises on Twitter and interest has sprung all over again for her award winning The Way of Life-- a film she not only directed, she wrote the screenplay! I love that in the Guardian she says that she and Dido have walked the same division everyday, defining herself bi-cultural. She truly is opening doors for other African descent filmmakers from around the globe. Perhaps with Steve McQueen's, also Afro-British, earlier Oscar win this year, we'll see the brilliant Asante in the winner's circle someday.

Amma Asante is an up and coming director that we all must watch and support. She is paving the way.
Thus, I have recommended Belle to all those who will listen and pray that once awards season hits that Belle will not be put on backburner, especially for costume design. Directional effort for Asante and a nod for Mbatha-Raw might be a bigger stretch, but we don't want to have another Pariah or Fruitvale Station on our hands. Hollywood needs to wake up and smell the beauty-- the beauty of the Negro experience whether it be in America or in the heart of Europe or anywhere else in the world. People of color exist and they have human experiences worth acknowledging, worth accepting.

Belle is a fascinating, moving art that makes tears fall in great abundance. A viewer simply cannot help desiring Kleenex and some good old- fashioned love.

Now please go watch. It's playing nationwide. 

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