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.