“I don’t know that I find myself anywhere.”
Thus responds Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the movie Belle when asked if she finds herself in a book she is reading.
As a biracial woman, I could almost say the same today. I don’t see myself as the subject of many books or movies—which is why 50 Shades of Black is so refreshing, and why I was excited to see Belle in theaters last week.
It tells the true story of a girl born to an enslaved African woman and a white aristocrat in 18th century England. After her mother dies and her father sets out to sea, she is raised lovingly by her father’s uncle and aunt in high society.
The story situates itself around the infamous Zong case brought before Belle’s adoptive great-uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), chief justice in Britain’s supreme court. In the case, merchants sued an insurer for monetary compensation for the 143 slaves they purposefully drowned at sea.
Belle learns of the Zong massacre through her love-interest, an aspiring lawyer named John Davinier (Sam Reid). She shares his convictions about the injustice in treating human beings as property. Together, they attempt to cut away at Lord Mansfield’s inclination to protect the institution of slavery (and his reputation).
This is a story about a woman whose unique position and background created opportunity for the moral advancement of a nation. She seized the opportunity with courage and grace. In that sense I connected strongly with the movie and Belle’s character. Being placed, by God or by chance, at the intersection between divided worlds creates a tremendous opportunity to reexamine unspoken and written rules that dictate the status quo, into which we do not neatly fit.
We are the enigmas that breathe humanity into the people whom hatred, ignorance and bitterness abstract. That is what is captured so well in this movie. Belle’s white family is forced to see black in full human form, with all her intelligence, beauty and virtue. They cannot deny her, as they have already loved her as their own child. What proceeds from this buildup of cognitive dissonance is Lord Manfield’s uplifting and cathartic speech on the immorality of the Zong massacre and the sense that Belle is truly an equal.
That being said, I left the movie wanting more depth and less melodrama.
In one scene Belle desperately rubs her skin, as if trying to remove the color. This was too brief a snapshot of the tumult she must have experienced in coming to terms with the complexity of her identity. Confronting people with the “problem” her existence poses to their beliefs is a scary place to be as a young woman. I expected more attention to the difficult process of developing that sense of self.
That process for me has involved surmounting innumerable seeds of self-doubt planted by subtle gestures and overt comments of “you don’t belong.” My attempts to claim a place in either the white or black communities constantly meet resistance even in the 21st century. It is a back-and-forth dance of asserting myself and retreating in rejection. My parents were open to discussing the issue, yet it is still difficult to navigate. I can only imagine it must’ve been much more difficult in Belle’s conservative upbringing.
It was also difficult to believe Belle was so incensed about equality, yet demonstrated little interest in her black heritage, or developing a connection with the few black people she had contact with. As she grows up, Belle—along with the audience, is sheltered from the harsh realities of the time. Only one other black character enters the screen and Belle’s interaction with her is limited.
I was disappointed in the predictable and safe delivery of an infinitely complex story. I understand it is too much to ask of a single work of art, and the first of its kind, to tell all aspects of the experience of living between color lines. There is but so much you can explore when taking on historical fiction. At least, it’s a start. I am hopeful more will come in varied forms, and that soon other Belle’s and I will find ourselves more often reflected in the world around us.
—Danielle B. Douez
Emory University Grad
BA Psychology 2013,
Freelance Writer & 50 Shades of Black Contributor