If you celebrated Women’s History Month by exclusively watching period dramas, I can’t say I blame you. There’s something fascinating about watching women from “back in the day” navigate the tricky waters of a restrictive society, all while exquisitely dressed. Add on top of that a frank discussion of race and you’ve got Amma Asante‘s Belle.
Belle is about Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of a white naval officer and a black slave. She is raised as a gentlewoman in the house of her great-uncle, the Lord Chief Justice of England. Dido comes of age in 1772, just as her great-uncle must rule on a critical slavery trial.
While these types of movies play with historical accuracy for the sake of drama, there is still a lot of depth to be found in the themes and that’s why I’ll be using Her Story Arc’s Scale of Inclusivity to rate and discuss Belle.
Not offensive to women* = 1 pt
Not at all offensive. The movie deals with race and gender on many levels and manages to balance them all.
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2 pts
Dido is the main character and she is surrounded by female supporting characters. Her strongest relationship is with her cousin Elizabeth Murray. The two were raised as sisters and support each other as they both come out in London society.
Passes the Bechdel test = 3 pts
Yes, though barely. Dido’s major conversations are either with men or about men, since she and her cousin tended to discuss marriage options. Her cousin does deliver one of the best lines in the movie, though, when she says of men and women, “We are but their property.” Her words help Dido draw parallels between the kinds of oppression in her world.
Artistic and/or Entertaining = 4 pts
If you like period pieces then you will like Belle. The costumes and sets are beautiful. My favorite part of any Austen film is the verbal sparring characters perform through veiled, seemingly-polite language. Belle has this in spades.
Above and Beyond General Media = 5 pts
Belle‘s screenwriter, Misan Sagay, took period dramas to a new level by keeping all the aspects we know and love, and deepening them with Dido’s struggle. Dido and, say, Lizzy Bennet, both want the same things–love, autonomy, happiness. But Dido’s path is further complicated by her race. Her alienation eventually helps her realize the restrictions of the society she is a part of and yet kept separate from.
This is a point of view frequently lacking from period pieces, which are often trapped by a “historical accuracy” fallacy. In Belle we see a black character in a new position, and therefore get to see period pieces through a new light. We’re lucky to have a chance to experience this story and that’s why I’ve awarded Belle 15/15 on the Scale of Inclusivity.
Check out the trailer here:
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*This is a category that could get very complicated, very quickly, if we tried to list everything that could be offensive to women. Instead, we use this category as a way of showing our own personal reaction to whatever we are reviewing. All contributors to this site are women and can speak from a woman’s perspective. However, no woman can speak for all women so we do our best to explain our choice one way or the other. We encourage all readers to share their opinions in the comments of every post if they want to express agreement or disagreement with our rankings.