The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Anna Reynolds Cooper.

Photo from the article They don’t tell you this, of course, but Belle is actually only very loosely based on historical events. Lord Mansfield did indeed have a black niece named Dido Belle who lived in his household at the time when he was making some landmark court decisions about slavery. However, the real Dido Belle was not an heiress; she had a half-brother and a half-sister, both white (and, like her, illegitimate), who received the sum of their father’s inheritance. She had no suitors running after her. She lived in her uncle’s household for the remainder of his life, fulfilling household functions including as a secretary, which was a position of relative respect and would normally have been filled by a man. When Lord Mansfield died, she received a modest annuity from his estate. She was married the same year, at the age of 32 - an old maid - to John Davinier, who was not a lawyer but rather a steward - a high-ranking male servant. Clearly her position was considerably more precarious and motley, and her outcome probably less happy, than the film makes it out to have been.

The film’s changes to this history - making Dido a young and fabulously wealthy heiress with an impoverished white cousin - align it more closely with the traditional, Austenian costume drama narrative of female marital choice. Seen this way, the film is less a historical account and more a thought experiment: what happens when a black character is inserted into an Austen story?

This thought experiment is an exceptionally ambitious one, given that Edward Said used Austen as ground zero for considering the colonialist violence that is lurking just below the surface in the 18th and 19th century British novel. Said’s pioneering reading of Austen exposes how the family wealth at stake in Mansfield Park is really the fruit of colonial capitalism, particularly in the form of plantation holdings in the West Indies. These plantations ran on slave labor, of course; a society that was ostensibly entirely white and highly civilized - and for which the contemporary costume drama film therefore tends to display considerable nostalgic affection - actually rested on a hidden foundation of slavery and violence.

Is it possible for a costume drama film to refuse participation in this racist nostalgia? Is it possible for the genre to critique itself from within? Belle certainly tries, with mixed results: it makes great strides but there are some gaps, too, that I think are worth flagging.

Where it succeeds best is at the level of philosophy, as it were: its exploration of the moral and legal connections between the institution of slavery; with its placing of financial value on human lives; and the institution of courtship, with its, well, placing of financial value on human lives. In a society where rank, wealth, and family honor are everything, Dido’s skin color becomes just another factor in her marriageability, or lack thereof. Her elders and her suitors are continually trying to determine her value within this system, to pin it down precisely and then make a trade, that is, a marriage with someone of equal worth.

Dido and her beloved young lawyer John Davinier pose an intellectual and moral challenge to both systems of value. They are abolitionists, of course; Davinier declares that a financial value cannot be put on a human life because human life - all human life, no matter the color - is of infinite value. The film depicts the first stirrings of this Enlightenment-era argument, visually associating it with America. With his three-cornered hat, his simple ponytail, and his plain cotton clothes, Davinier looks like nothing so much as a Revolutionary War patriot, standing out amongst the highly adorned and colorful costumes of the English aristocracy.

Yet a new conception of romantic love also follows from this commitment to human rights and equality. The couple’s desire to marry is situated as a progressive political statement in which an individual’s interior desires are placed above the systemically conferred benefits (money, rank) of marriage. A central tension in much of Austen is whether love is good or bad for women; for while it is a good in its own right, it can also lead to very poor decision-making and to ultimate ruin, as when Lydia Bennet runs off with the dashing scoundrel Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s endings tend to resolve this tension through a frankly quite fantastical coupling of love and wealth into a single relationship: a refusal to make the heroine choose between these two values.

Belle, on the other hand, draws the battle lines, showing up the institution of courtship as a dehumanizing and utterly backward system that is designed to enable the powerful to concentrate even more power - much like slavery. Lord Mansfield’s court decision about the Zong slave ship case and his decision about allowing Dido and Mr. Davinier to marry are treated, both narratively and philosophically, as a single decision, challenging the foundations of this deeply conservative society.

Various oppressions - not only racial ones - are taken to task here, as Belle achieves its critique of the genre. “I am blessed with freedom twice over: as a Negro and as a woman,” Dido remarks. The system of virtual ownership of women is also challenged here, as Dido and her cousin Elizabeth are excruciatingly aware of themselves as powerless. Class, too, is shown up as a category of oppression, as Davinier’s low status as a vicar’s son means that he and Dido share a position on the fringes of high society, denied status and agency within this brutal system.

Yet, despite the film’s use of, erm, colorfully antiquated racist language when various white characters discuss black people, there are other issues of historical racist representation that are not addressed. For example, Belle is punctuated throughout with stirring close-up shots of Enlightenment-era paintings depicting exoticized black people - treated as shadow figures to the prominent whites who are the subjects of these portraits. In several of them, the black figure is placed allegorically beneath the white personage, as though to lend their owners gravitas and power. It thus sets up a reflexive question: is it possible to make Western art - or Western films - that refuse this racist, Orientalizing treatment of people of color?

Yet the film evades this question. The portrait of Dido and Elizabeth commissioned by Lord Mansfield is positioned as an antidote, showing the two young women on an equal level, with Elizabeth’s hand placed affectionately on Dido’s waist as Dido’s eyes glow with intelligence. This fabricated portrait closely resembles a real-life portrait made of the two young women - a portrait that the film shows us just before the credits roll - yet with one crucial difference: in the historical portrait, Dido wears a turban on her head, a detail erased from the film’s fictional portrait. This points to a potentially significant erasure: the film’s apparent denial of the very widespread Orientalist aesthetic in 18th century visual culture - perhaps most evident in chinoiserie but certainly present in other traditions as well - and the ways a black woman in English society would have had to negotiate this Orientalism in her own decorative and sartorial choices. In the film, Dido is portrayed through her costuming as a genteel English lady in every sense. In real life, it seems clear from the historical portrait, Dido Belle was perceived and costumed as an exotic Other.

This may seem insignificant, but it is potentially a major failing in a genre so intensely focused on the decorative aspects of Europe’s past. The film relies on Dido’s sartorial identity as a proper English lady to construct the poignancy of her plight, thus leaving intact the long racist tradition of visual representation in which those depicted as Other are denied full personhood.

And another problem: the trappings of the genteel English lady embodied by Dido and Elizabeth were in fact almost entirely produced through colonialist enterprise. Cotton, silk, jewels, perfumes: all were (and indeed still are) largely produced abroad using slave labor, whether it is forthrightly named as such or not. Even as it presents a passionate case for the rights of individuals, Belle still revels in the decorative pleasures of the very luxury goods that marked 18th century England as a violently stratified society, leaving their problematic provenance untouched.

I don’t want to pick bones here; arguments against progressive works like this one often come across as ungrateful and self-satisfied, and Belle remains wonderful and important in its accomplishments. But there is still further work to be done when it comes to updating and interrogating the costume drama: a worthy project that I hope will continue.

This Alternate Take was published on July 08, 2014.

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