There’s a moment in the 1994 film Double Happiness, which stars a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Sandra Oh, that’s stuck in my mind ever since seeing it. Oh plays Jade Li, an aspiring actress who longs for a “really dramatic part. Something really hard and real. I don’t know. Something that I had to, like, gain weight for.” Instead, she’s stuck auditioning for roles as a Chinese waitress.
The movie industry’s larger failings with diversity aside, there are entire swaths of cinema that have traditionally been closed off to actors who aren’t white due to fidelity to the realities of the history and slices of society they depict. And unfortunately, those genres have often dominated ideas of what constitutes quality and provides a platform for the weighty acting that wins Oscars — literary classics and stories of past American presidents or European royals. If you’re a person of color and want to be Blanche DuBois or to strap on a corset and play a non-fantasy realm queen, you won’t have much luck on screen.
But now, there’s Belle, which opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday before expanding into other cities over the rest of the month, and which manages to inject race into the Jane Austen–style British period drama about social conventions and romance, courtesy of the much-embellished-upon story of a real woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle. Played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dido is the illegitimate daughter of Adm. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an African slave, and was raised in the care of her uncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), first earl of Mansfield and the lord chief justice of England.
Belle was directed and written by women of color, Amma Asante (A Way of Life) and Misan Sagay, and is in many ways a steadfastly standard costume drama. It’s unerringly well-behaved and restrained — all gowns, manners, and husband hunts, in which how many pounds a year a person is worth is at least as important as social standing and affection. Left a sizable inheritance by her father, Dido is caught between an income-hunting gentleman suitor named Oliver Ashford (James Norton) and the idealistic but lower-ranked young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), and her ultimate choice isn’t a surprise.
But the very idea of Dido’s race, not to mention the striking image of Mbatha-Raw in Georgian regalia, turns Belle into something subversive. The fact that she’s black but aristocratic threatens to topple the social order according to which Lord Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) live by calling into question the reasoning behind the rules. Dido isn’t allowed to dine formally with visitors, but Mansfield deems it appropriate that she mingle with them afterward in the parlor. Dido’s cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), who struggles to find a suitable spouse without the benefit of a dowry, can come out into London society, but Dido can’t, despite being brought along as a companion. And Mansfield doesn’t want Dido to marry, because he believes any man who’d pursue her would be of lower social standing. He loves her, but hopes to consign her to a more convenient life as a spinster like her aunt, Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton).
Dido encounters some overt racism, most of it from Harry Potter alum Tom Felton as Oliver’s sneering older brother James Ashford, but she’s more likely to encounter shocked bemusement. There’s simply no context for her, a conventionally raised aristocrat who’s black. She has little context for herself, having been raised on the estate — seemingly the first other woman of color she meets is a servant at the house in London, who spots her wrestling a comb through her hair at night and shows her how to start at the ends and work her way up.
Belle’s romance may be conventional to the genre, in which necessity and love neatly come together, but its heroine’s journey into self-awareness isn’t, especially as it coincides with a momentous court case Lord Mansfield has to make regarding a slave ship, the Zong, whose living cargo was dumped during a journey.
That England is still heavily involved in the slave trade in the age of Belle gives the story some added sharpness. Dido’s presence in the lives of the film’s other highborn characters, especially in that of her uncle, demands a new reckoning of the terrible immorality of deciding someone can be property on the basis of their race. There’s nothing about Dido to separate her from the other ladies except for the both momentous and negligible matter of the color of her skin, and she’s not some distant concept like those forced to make the Middle Passage.
How the real Lord Mansfield’s decision on the Zong massacre was affected by Dido can only be guessed at, as with many details about the actual woman’s life. But Belle manages to bring something fresh to the staid costume drama by introducing a radiant lead actress of color and by insisting on the consideration of some of the brutal realities of the economy that helped sustain those elegant balls and beautiful finery. Jade Li would be proud.