Monthly Archives: June 2014

Disney’s Forgotten Treasures: “The Black Cauldron”

I am, it is no secret, a long-time passionate fan of Disney feature animation.  While I find the ostensible politics of many of these films retrograde and sometimes even reactionary, I am also of the school that attempts to find subversive pleasures in the hegemonic popular culture fed to us by media giants like Disney.  Likewise, though I am a huge fan of their most recent mega-hit Frozen (rightly celebrated for its emphasis on the bonds between and among women over and above heterosexual romance), I also think it important to draw attention to those entries in the Disney animated features canon that have been overlooked and undervalued, due in no small part to the blizzard of Princess-related merchandise that Disney constantly pumps into the market.  So, to do my small part in bringing to light some of their under-appreciated feature films, I am going to focus on some of the most under-appreciated Disney animated features, starting with the ultimate black sheep of the Disney family, The Black Cauldron.

Released in 1985, the film is based on Lloyd Alexander’s excellent young adult series “The Chronicles of Pyrdain,” based on various aspects of Welsh mythology.  It follows the adventures of young hero Taran as he struggles to keep the sinister Horned King (voiced by the inimitable John Hurt) from gaining the power of the Black Cauldron.  Of course, he ultimately succeeds, and the story ends on a happy note.

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of this film is its dark and brooding atmosphere.  Since much of the narrative action takes place in nightmarish places–such as the Horned King’s decaying castle and the labyrinthine Marshes of Morva–this makes sense, and it certainly marks a departure from almost every other Disney feature.  Even though the two preceding features, The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound were also fairly dark in tone and colouring, neither is as unrelentingly sinister as The Black Cauldron.  Indeed, this film has more in common with works such as Conan and such post-apocalyptic TV fare as Thundarr the Barbarian.  Thus, The Black Cauldron offers us a tantalizing glimpse into what feature animation–with its budget and dedicated artistry–can accomplish when it seeks to plumb some of the darker depths of the fantastic.

Further, the scenes featuring the Cauldron-born are especially terrifying, but in a way that makes you want to see more of them.  With skeletal frames eerily blurred and limned by the Cauldron’s venomous green mist, these are the creatures of nightmare, and they are simultaneously alluring and repulsive.  It is thus unfortunate that they get so little screen time, at least compared to some of the less-compelling aspects of the screenplay.  Allegedly, there were several scenes slashed out of the final cut for being too violent (hardly surprising, even if it was the 1980s, the era of Rambo and Rocky), and that is a shame, as such violence would not only have raised the stakes of the film but also shown unequivocally Disney’s commitment to diversifying its artistic output.

It is the Horned King, however, who really makes this film worth seeing.  Memorably voiced by John Hurt, he broods at the edge of the film, only rarely coming fully into the frame.  When he does, however, he steals the show.  Part of what makes him so compelling is the mystery that shrouds him; it is implied that he is a mortal man, but something has clearly gone wrong to render him a twisted perversion of human.  What little glimpses we get of his face reveal a gaunt and haggard skull, but we are never told what rendered him this way.  However, we do know that his forces have been at war with those of the rest of Pyrdain for some time, and it is the collected corpses of the fallen, presumably from both sides, that serve as the source for his army of the undead.  It is quite chilling to see them unloaded from carts into a vast chamber, yet another sign of the Horned King’s sinister and unfathomably inhuman nature.  Though seldom included in the pantheon of great Disney villains, the Horned King’s inscrutable cruelty and ruthlessness certainly put him up there with the likes of Scar and Maleficent.

Does The Black Cauldron have its flaws?  Certainly.  There are a few plot holes that don’t hold up to intense scrutiny.  The protagonists, while likable enough, aren’t terribly well-developed.  However, the film represents a road not taken by Disney.  Or at least a road that they only rarely traverse (The Hunchback of Notre Dame is another example of a so-called darker Disney).  That was a road that could have led to some truly adventurous artistry but, alas, the company chose the safer road, and we the consumers are the poorer for it.  In fact, the film disappeared after its release and did not even receive a homo video release until almost a decade later (I remember my excitement at the imminent release of something I had seen only glimmers of in trailers at the beginning of other Disney features).  Even the most recent version (the 25th Anniversary Edition as of this writing), does not do justice to the film.  It excludes, for instance, the particularly disturbing scenes mentioned earlier which, in my opinion, would have deepened and enriched this already rewarding film.  But, such are the vicissitudes of Disney’s restoration efforts.

What do you think?  Is The Black Cauldron a misfire best forgotten or an aesthetically under-appreciated gem?  Or a little of both?  Share your opinions in the comments!

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” May Be the Best Movie of the Summer

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise, so it will also come as no secret that I am VERY excited for the imminent release of the newest entry, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and, unlike some, I don’t mind the repetitiveness of the titles).  Now that we have gleaned several tantalizing glimpses as a result of a fevered marketing campaign, it’s time to ask the tough questions.  What is there really to look forward to in this recent entry?

To start with the most basic, we will finally get to see the aftermath of what occurred in the first film.  While escaping from San Francisco and fleeing into the Muir Woods, to say nothing of starting a devastating flu epidemic were truly stupendous accomplishments, the trailer for the upcoming films suggests that we will get to see what the fallout from that is like.  (The immediate aftermath is laid out in the novel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  Firestorm by Greg Keyes.  It is a truly well-written work that asks the same sorts of questions raised by Rise).  This is a world, after all, that has been radically altered by the downfall of humanity into disease and lawlessness.  As a result, there is an openness to the world that this film will represent, in which the future is literally up for grabs as each side stakes out its territory.

As part of this, the trailers and other TV spots suggest that we will gain a greater glimpse of the social organization of the apes.  Clearly, Caesar will be the leader of his fellow non-human simians, but the society the trailers have shown is highly evolved.  We will at last get to see how it comes to pass that the apes have their own homes, as well as how some of them have mastered language, both signed and spoken.  While this society will, undoubtedly, bear some relationship to our own (since, as most readers will recall, Caesar was raised among humans and only left their orbit once they showed their cruelty to him and his kind), it will also be vastly different.  These are, after all, apes that have evolved to be human-like but not entirely human.  As such, the film provides a fascinating and tantalizing possibility of what a non-human civilization could look like.

While the apes will no doubt steal the show (as they did in the first film), the human characters also look like they will gain more development than they did in the first installment of this reboot.  Gary Oldman (his most recent asinine statements notwithstanding) will no doubt shine as Dreyfus, the human leader spurred on by a hatred of the apes and a deep mourning for his lost family (who presumably died of the flu).  I suspect that most of the human drama will hinge on their collective sense of precariousness.  Though certainly precipitated by 10 years of post-flu chaos and martial law, this feeling will most certainly be heightened by the looming possibility of an ape invasion that could snuff out what little tendrils of civilization humanity has managed to cling to and resurrect out of the chaos.

The truly pressing question, however, is this:  what will be the outcome of the battle that we have seen in the final trailer?  The stakes, we know, are as high as they possibly can be, as this seems to be the point at which the scales may tip decidedly in favour of the apes.  After all, at some point in the franchise we are going to have to learn how it came about that non-human apes came to be the dominant species on planet Earth.  Just as importantly, we will also find out whether Caesar will survive the battle that threatens to engulf both his people and the humans to whom he clearly feels some ties.  If he does not (and it is a definite possibility that he will meet his death in this film), then the misanthropy represented by the vengeful bonobo Koba could well set the agenda for future generations of apes.  And for humans as well.

While it will no doubt draw heavily on its precursor in the original series Battle for the Planet of the Apes (in much the same way that Rise drew inspiration from Conquest), Dawn looks as if it will, in good post-apocalyptic fashion, point out just how transient we humans really are.  And that is a truly good lesson for us as a species to learn.

A Love/Hate Letter to West Virginia

Dear West Virginia:

My decision to write this letter was inspired my several things:  by being home visiting Family, the recent decision of the Presbyterian Church to recognize same-sex marriages in states where they are allowed, the great advances made in gay rights across the country, and by my state’s recent birthday.  It caused me to think long and hard about my vexed relationship to my home state, what I love about it and its people, and what I absolutely hate.

There’s no denying that there are lots of things about you, West Virginia, to love.  From delicious pepperoni rolls to people who are often quite warm and welcoming, you have a culture all its own.  You are home to a people who have, for centuries, been exploited by natural resource industries, from lumber to coal to (most recently) natural gas, and the rest of the country has routinely looked down on them, mocking them in popular culture and rendering them the butt of crude jokes.  Yet for all of that, they still greet strangers with genuine warmth, and I love that about you.  There is nothing quite like the heartfelt hospitality of a West Virginia home.  They might not have much, but they are more than willing to share that, even with strangers.

And when it comes to natural beauty, no one (and I mean no one) can beat West Virginia.  Your sprawling mountains, your wooded hillsides that come alive with color in the autumn, your waterfalls, your vibrant wildlife…I simply cannot say enough about how beautiful you are.  And it terrifies me how endangered and fragile that beauty is, as both the coal and the gas industries seem absolutely determined to do everything in their power to spoil and ruin that beauty, and the worst part about it is that they convince your people that the violation of your natural beauty is in their own best interests.

You see, that geography and that history has left some nasty scars, and they are not so easily shaken off.  West Virginia, let’s face it, you need to catch up to the 21st Century.  Your stubborn opposition to any social or cultural movements is staggeringly myopic, and it is costing you your lifeblood.  Year after year, I hear about how anxious you are about all of the young, college-educated people leaving the state.  Do you want to know why these people are leaving?  They are leaving because, increasingly, the people of West Virginia are doing everything they can to fit into those awful stereotypes.  Willful ignorance and retrenchment does not help your cause.  I hate it that I have to constantly explain why it is that the people of my state aren’t rising up in rebellion against the companies that are so blatantly exploiting them.  I hate it that my state still lags behind on the acceptance of various minorities, and that it will probably take nothing short of a SCOTUS ruling striking down bans on same-sex marriage to make you accept same-sex relationships.  But even that will not be enough; you have to change the way you think about people who are different than your expected “norm.”  I hate it that you remain a cultural and social backwater, when you have so much potential to be so much more.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is this.  I understand, West Virginia, that you have a heritage that you want to respect, and I am, to an extent, proud of that heritage.  However, you also have to realize that there is so much that goes into that heritage, not just white, Christian, heterosexual people.  And, just as importantly, you are going to have to start making room in your state for diversity in all of its forms.  If you don’t, you take the risk of alienating yourself from a future that should, in my opinion, include you.  You have a great deal to offer the rest of the country, but they will find it very difficult to take you seriously and welcome you into the vibrant and diverse place this country can be.  That doesn’t mean you have to abandon everything that makes you, you, but you need to find a way to reconcile your past and your future.

Hopefully, you can do that, and make me unequivocally proud to be a West Virginian.



Why Lady Stoneheart Matters

Immediately following the airing of the Game of Thrones finale “The Children,” the internet exploded with fan outrage over the exclusion of the character Lady Stoneheart.  In fact, there was even a Twitter hashtag devoted to it (#noladystoneheart), and I’ll admit that I spent a great deal of time last Sunday night perusing that thread, salving my bruised expectations by wallowing in collective outrage. Since then, I have noticed a lot of speculation about whether this character will be included in the HBO adaptation at all, as well as those who opine that she should not be, nor should she have been in the novels.  Well, I am here to go to bat for Lady Stoneheart, and to argue forcefully and loudly not only why she should be included in the series, but also why she is an important, even pivotal, part of Martin’s original creation.

Spoiler warning:  For those who do not know, Lady Stoneheart is the resurrected Catelyn Stark, brought back from the dead after her water-damaged corpse is discovered by Berric Dondarrion and the Brotherhood Without Banners.  Berric subsequently gives his life to save hers, and she becomes their leader, hunting down any and all she deems responsible for her son’s death.  Ultimately, this includes Brienne, whom she believes sold herself to Jaime Lannister.  Though we have not seen Lady Stoneheart since A Feast for Crows, we can reasonably assume that she is still alive (sort of), and that she will have some part to play in the novels.

However, the same cannot be said of the series. Benioff and Weiss have been ambiguous about what they plan to do with her, if anything.  Fans had been led to believe that she would appear in the season four finale, as Lena Headey posted a photo with a heart made of stones.  Not only that, but Catelyn has hovered over the entire season, as if the writers were priming us for her appearance at the very end.  Alas, she did not appear, and I was much more disappointed than I probably should have been, but there you have it.

Now, for the novels, Catleyn’s appearance is just one more indication that old world type magic has come back into the world, along with other signs and wonders, including the infamous dragons and the Others.  This is a world where the old rules that governed Westeros do not apply, including the ones that separate the living from the dead.  Her brutal vigilantism is a far cry from her husband Ned’s form of justice, but that is just another sign that Westeros as a unified political body is coming undone at the seams.

And that is precisely why she is such an important character.  While some might dismiss her as a rare misstep for Martin and a cop-out of the brutality of the Red Wedding, I would argue that precisely the opposite is true.  It is important to point out that Catelyn has lost all of her beauty, and the horrible slash on her throat keeps her from being able to speak in anything other than a hoarse and almost unintelligible whisper.  Lady Stoneheart may be alive, but the consequences of her resurrection–which does not, in Martin’s brutal world, include healing of the injuries sustained at the tiem of death–remain all too present on her body.  Even magic, it seems, has its limitations.

In terms of the HBO series, Lady Stoneheart is just as important.  In addition to serving the same function as the novels (since the series also portrays the dangers of a world falling apart at the seams), she is also a crucial part of the plotline that develops between Brienne and Podrick.  If Lady Stonheart does not arrive to take them prisoner, it seems unclear what exactly they will be doing.  Of course, we don’t know what plans Martin has for Brienne now that we know that she escaped hanging (a fact revealed in A Dance With Dragons), so perhaps the showrunners know something that we do not.

So, while some might doubt that Lady Stoneheart has a role to play in either the novels or the television series, to me it seems obvious that she is as important in undeath as she was in life.  It remains to be seen, however, whether she will meet the fate of other characters that have not made the transition from page to screen.  Only time will tell.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen?

It could be convincingly argued that Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are the most important characters in both A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, the HBO series based upon the novels.  Jon Snow is, it is widely believed by readers, the bastard son of Rhaegar (the model prince), while Daenerys is the last legal heir of the Targaryen dynasty.  Further, each represents a part of the ice/fire dyad, with Jon Snow occupying his position as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, while Daenerys has overseen the hatching of the world’s last three dragons.

Clearly, these two characters, though they occupy the fringes of the series’ worlds, are nevertheless two poles around which the rest of the events (of the novels, at least) implicitly revolve.  Unfortunately, both of these characters, both in Martin’s novels and in the HBO series, have gotten so mired down in their respective quagmires–both of them are learning the hard rules of ruling over others–that their chapters become somewhat repetitive.  This is definitely the case with the two most recent novels, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, to such a point that as a reader (and as a viewer of the series, which has started to draw from those novels), I often tune out during those sequences.  This truly frustrates me, because as an avid reader and over-thinker of the series, I know that these characters are vitally important, but it becomes increasingly hard to care about them or to find their chapters compelling reading, or viewing.

Though I love much of what HBO has done with Game of Thrones, they have definitely stumbled a bit with Jon’s story this season.  Kit Harrington is only moderately charismatic at the best of times, and he has not been helped this season by a slogging series of scenes that basically features him saying, in his usual husky voice, that the Wildlings are coming.  Thus, although the battle at the Wall in the penultimate episode was visually well-done (if ultimately anticlimactic), as a viewer I was still left wanting more from this important character.  Hopefully, the series will be able to make more of his narrative than the books have so far done.

The HBO series also compounds the Daenerys ennui problem by completely flattening out the parts of Essos to which she travels.  So far, we have seen both Qarth and Meereen in a great deal of detail, and neither even comes within a hairs-breadth of the complexity and visual beauty evoked in Martin’s novels.  Lest anyone think this is purist complaining, I don’t have much of a problem with how they have changed the plots of Daenerys’ storylines.  I’m annoyed that a series that has so much money thrown at it is consistently unwilling to paint Essos with any depth.  To take just one example, in the novel the citizens of Meereen are given a great deal of complexity, with priestesses known as Graces, wild hairstyles, and complex political relationships.  All of this complexity, like that of Qarth, is completely eschewed by the series, and Dany’s already-frustratingly scattershot storyline is even more hamstrung than it is in the novels.  Surely the scion of a powerful dynasty who commands three dragons deserves some better treatment.

If both the novels and the TV series want to make these storylines more compelling than they are in their current form, they are going to have to start moving them to the center of the narrative in more meaningful ways.  Perhaps that is going to happen shortly, now that the pieces are beginning to move in some surprisingly dynamic directions.  In my view, this is the only fitting way to salvage the problematic storylines that Dany and Jon now occupy in their respective parts of the world.

What Can “Game of Thrones” Tell Us About History?

By now, it’s well-known that George R.R. Martin’s popular series A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as the HBO series Game of Thrones, draw liberally from our own world and its history.  Most obviously, Westeros resembles England, with the rival houses of Lannister and Stark paralleling the feud between Lancaster and York that tore England apart during the conflicts known as the Wars of the Roses.  Events such as the Red Wedding, likewise, have real-world analogues.  Aside from inspirations, what else does Game of Thrones have to teach us about history?  Can it tell us how history works?  The short answer is that yes, it can, in sometimes quite startling and unexpected ways.

At the level of narrative, both ASoIaF and GoT are immensely complex, with literally dozens of characters with substantial roles to play.  However, it is the relationships among these characters–often inscrutable or obfuscated by the characters themselves–that encourage a reflection on both how we think of the past as a discrete entity from the present and how we make sense of multiple series of events that may seem at first glance to be utterly unconnected.  For example, Petyr Baelish convinces Lysa Arryn to poison her husband, setting off the chain of events that ultimately leads to the events of the first novel and first episode of the series.  Can all of the deaths and destruction thus be laid at his door?  The question is a troublesome one to answer, for though one line of thought certainly leads to his door, one could also argue that the seeds for the current political crises can be traced back even further, to Robert’s Rebellion, or further still to Rhaegar’s kidnapping of Lysa.  The process could go on indefinitely; the series suggests, then, that while historical causality does exist, it is never as straightforward and uncomplicated as we might like it to be.

Furthermore, this tying together of disparate events encourages viewers to conceive of events and individuals as intrinsically connected to one another.  Even the most seemingly unimportant of events can have far-ranging consequences that often exceed the the purposes of those who perpetrate them.  What’s more, even those not directly involved in the action (or involved at all) may still feel the effects, both positive and negative, of the acts undertaken by someone hundreds and even thousands of miles away.  There is, then, a sense of historical vulnerability and of precariousness, as the characters (though not we, the readers) often perceive their circumstances as arbitrary, rather than as caused by an individual agent.

Just as importantly, however, both series feature seasons that can last decades. Now, this might seem like nothing more than a fantasy conceit, but it actually influences how characters within the series conceive of themselves and of the world around them.  When such a fundamental aspect of the measurement of time as a season exceeds the bounds of the usual means of measuring time (in this case, the year), one is forced to think of time itself, and one’s experience of its unfolding, quite differently.  Again, this is not something that the characters themselves might be acutely aware of, but we in the audience are encouraged to think about the ways in which we make sense of our daily experience through the unfolding of both natural and constructed time.  Game of Thrones potently reminds us that not only do we owe something to those who have come before, but they also owe something to us, for we are, for better and worse, the inheritors of the wrongs of the past.  These series reminds us that the question of what to do about that debt is one that is not easily answered, though in the end we have no other choice but to find some kind of solution.

All of this brings an awareness to readers–and perhaps, though this is less certain, to some of the characters themselves–that they are immersed in a world that is on the brink of great change.  Seldom do those who live in such times recognize it, but Martin’s opus, much like Tolkien’s before it, self-consciously provides readers with an opportunity to see how history is made, both in action and in remembrance.   Although we often do not realize it, we are all of us in the midst of history being made; we only come to realize it is history after the fact (and often when it has been enshrined by trained historians).  History in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones works in a multitude of complex and often contradictory ways, and this is one of the greatest sources of pleasure to be derived from these sources.  However, we should also be aware of the potential political ramifications from such an understanding of the unfolding of history, as well as the relationship between

Clearly, there is a great deal about this particular fantasy series that can have significant consequences for how we conceive of history in our own world.  Though the world that we constantly see is full of the most unimaginably heinous acts of violence and destruction, there is a moral lesson here nevertheless, and it is that each individual must constantly be aware of the law of unintended consequences.  When the laws and foundations that undergird the orderly working of society–which, in essence, are based upon an idea of history as progress, that the world is getting better–are discounted in favor the needs of the individual, then society itself begins to unravel.  It remains to be seen how both Martin and the showrunners will ultimately bring everything to a conclusion.  However, even if all of the plot lines are eventually neatly tied up (which is itself open to a great deal of doubt), the fact that there will be any measure of conclusion is itself a claim upon history.  In the end, the people of Westeros and Essos may finally learn the truth of the old adage that those who do not learn from history (and, it might be added, the heinous acts committed in the past) are doomed to repeat it.

Opening Credits and the Aesthetics of Television History

Upon recently re-watching the HBO series Rome, I was struck anew at the complex artistry that underlies the opening credits.  While the series itself raises numerous questions about the representation of history within the medium of television, it is the opening credit sequence, more than anything else in the series, that adequately evokes something of the strangeness and alien sensibilities of antiquity.  This also made me think about the function, both aesthetic and ideological, of some of the other popular historical (and pseudo-historical) dramas that have become such an important part of the programming line-ups of premium channels such as HBO.

As I have argued elsewhere, one of the functions of effective historical fiction is to evoke, in some measure, the foreignness and difference of the past, and this is something that the opening titles of Rome do to a greater degree than allowed by the narrative demands of the series itself.  Featuring numerous types of graffiti and a haunting score, Rome’s opening sequence seems to skitter away from any attempts to pinpoint its exact meaning or to fit it neatly into our own expectations for artistic representation.  Holly Haynes has compellingly written that the opening credits, and the series itself, evoke the contradictory pleasures of the exotic and the everyday.  If the visual arts can serve as a barometer of how a given culture conceives of itself, these opening illustrations provide a fragmentary glimpse of a culture whose sensibilities are quite different from our own; not just exotic (with all of the problematic politics that entails), but alien and even, I would argue, uncanny.  By relying on ephemera such as graffiti, these images not only evoke the fragmented nature of our knowledge of antiquity but also allow us to get as a close as we can to a phenomenologically different experience of the distant past.  In that respect, they rely on an aesthetic more akin to Fellini Satyricon than I, Claudius and as such call for a for a nuanced and (drawing on Haynes again) contradictory relationship to Roman history.

The opening credits for The Tudors could not be more different.  Unlike Rome, the sequence has much more of a direct relationship to the material presented, with each of the characters presented, typically with a posture or a prop that suggests their role in the narrative.  While it does not evoke the strangeness of Early Modern culture, these images, as lush as they are, evoke the aesthetics that The Tudors consistently relied on throughout its run.  Just as importantly, they also evoke the ethos of the series’ vision of the past and of history, i.e. a vision characterized by the (sometimes) uncomfortable and pleasurably tight coupling of politics and sexuality, all of which is highlighted by the sensuality of the visual image.

Finally, Game of Thrones.  Yes, I know it’s not technically historical, but both the series and the novels upon which it is based draw extensively from history in our world, both for narrative and for worldview.  In this case, the opening credits (arguably some of the best produced in recent television) provide viewers with an overhead view of the continents of Westeros and Essos.  In creating and relying upon this particular aesthetic, Game of Thrones’ opening credits reveal this series’ investment in a historical consciousness that construes history, both recent and distant, as a convoluted and complex skein of individual events and actions that, while connected, are not governed by any overarching logic.  There may be causality in this world, but there is no explanation.

All of this is not to say that the actual narratives of these series don’t matter; quite the opposite.  However, what I want to suggest is that the opening credits sequence, far from being tangential to the historical vision offered by contemporary historical drama, is actually an essential part of the viewing experience, priming viewers for the vision of the past they will soon encounter and offering a particular viewing position from which to experience history.

On being a thing

Sarah Kendzior

I do not write personal essays. This is the first, and likely the last, you will see.

I write articles that have resonated with millions of people, often in an emotional way. But I never write about myself or my personal life. I have multiple platforms and if I wanted to, I could. I choose not to – in part because I think focusing on myself distracts from the social and political problems I depict, but also because I value my privacy.

I am like this in “real life” too. I have been described as aloof, but I try to be generous and kind. I take care of my family and my community. I don’t care about fame, which is much more of a curse than a gift. I reject most media interviews. My priorities are my loved ones and my work. Yesterday I was reading Charlotte’s Web to my…

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Review–“Belle”: A Costume Drama Meaningfully Depicts the History of Slavery

There is a moment in the film Belle where the titular character stares at a painting in which a young black man looks–adoringly?  powerlessly?–up at a white man.  This poignant moment crystallizes many of the issues this thoughtful costume drama raises, including and especially the vexed status that people have colour have occupied in Western society, at once on the margins of representation and yet situated squarely at the center of political and social discourse.  Throughout, Belle effectively utilizes the conventions of the costume drama–the emphasis on female subjectivity and point of view, the conjoining of the personal and the political–to effectively lay bare the convoluted, complex, and paradoxical position that people of colour, especially women, face on a daily basis.

The film centers on Dido Belle, the illegitimate, bi-racial daughter of an English noble whose uncle, William Murray, is the Lord Chief Justice.  Both illegitimate and black, Dido finds herself caught in a paradoxical position within 18th Century English society.  Gradually, however, she finds true love with a vicar’s son while also exerting her influence on her great-uncle, who ultimately renders an important court decision that rings the death-knell of slavery in England.

The key issue of visual representation is a recurring one in the film:  from the time she is a child, Dido remains aware of the marginal status that people of colour have in her society.  They may appear in paintings, and they may even attain their freedom, but they are still below the white people with whom they share the world.  Thus, it is all the more remarkable when William commissions a painting of Elizabeth that will include Dido as a figure in her own right rather than just a support for her white cousin.  Dido, rightfully, recognizes this is a significant step on her great-uncle’s part, an indication of his growing commitment to a measure of racial equality.

Dido is a refreshingly self-aware heroine, showing a piercing awareness of the contradictory nature of her class position.  Blessed by her father with a substantial fortune that renders her an heiress in her own right (in contrast to her white cousin, who is almost penniless), Dido’s racial status means that she will find it difficult, if not impossible, to find a husband that will match her status.  This, in turn, means that, like spinster Aunt Mary, she will be condemned to a life without a man which, in 18th Century English society, is not at all a pleasant prospect.  Belle thus highlights the impossible position that Dido occupies as a result of her gender, her race, and her class, all of which continue to act together to put her in an increasingly untenable position.  Though she is privileged because of her wealth and her class status, her gender and her race intersect with that position to imprison her, as she reminds the vicar’s son when he asks whether her refusal to join him for dinner with the rest of the family is a rejection of his class status.  Dido pointedly reminds him that it is a reminder of her own.  The vexed and vulnerable status she occupies is made even more apparent when a potential suitor for her cousin (played by a sneering Tom Felton), sexually assaults her, in the belief that her raced body is for his consumption.

Yet for all of its attention to politics, the film also points out the immense strength to be found in the bonds between and among women.  Dido remains staunchly loyal to her cousin, even though Elizabeth is not always grateful for it.  Perhaps most powerfully of all, Dido develops a bond with her uncle’s freeedwoman servant, their bonds forged out of a mutual awareness of their liminal status as free women of colour in a society that does not yet have a place for them.

Thus, though it occasionally veers into predictability, Belle nevertheless points out the necessity of an intersectional understanding of social problems.  Gender, race, and class do not operate as isolated phenomena, but instead are mutually constitutive.  As such, it is a poignant reminder of the ways in which these structures and systems continue to have their effects, even in a supposedly post-racial society.  Furthermore, the film is a powerful testament to the fact that Anglo-American media culture may finally be on the verge of being able to talk about the long, horrible, and troubled history of slavery in ways that can be both meaningful and thought-provoking.