Tuesday, October 6, 2015

DVD of the Week: Belle

Britains Colonial and Imperial History seems to be something that, by and large, our general culture has become keen to forget. It's going back a bit, but when I was a kid the history I was taught was decidedly anti-colonial, keen on the wrongs of the Empire and framing the slaughter of the First World War as it's natural end. My fathers generation, growing up immediately after the Second World War and the End of Empire, was well versed in the battles and heros if Colonial Myth, of it's self-identified civilising mission, and a misty eyed look at a Great Power now fallen from grace. Now, it seems, we hardly talk about the Empire and it's legacy at all, despite the long shadow it casts over Britain even now. And of course that means we're left with even less awareness of the engine that funded it as it got rolling; slavery. 

Slavery, of course, existed long before the Triangular Slave Trade really raised it to an economic fine art, funnelling human cargo from Africa to the Americas (including both British colonial possessions and the independent United States), bringing cotton and sugar from the planations back to the UK and then taking British goods to Africa to buy more slaves. It was a cycle that sucked up Human misery and spat out money, and that money enabled Britain to establish itself as a global power. It's a bleak stain on our national past only mitigated in part by the blood and treasure we spent to help abolish the trade in the 19th century. 

I can't think, however, of many attempts to dramatise this period in British History in the way that has been applied to the American Slave experience. There is a movie about Wilberforce's passing of the act that abolished the trade - Amazing Grace - which for all it's merits is very much White History, but from a perusal of a lot of popular culture you'd think that People of Colour only arrived in the United Kingdom in the 1950s. Spoiler - thats really not the case. It doesn't help that the Regency and it's surrounding decades are dominated by Jane Austin, so anything using that settling is almost obliged to be dealing with balls, and social graces and smouldering understatement. Thankfully, there is a story that ticks all the usual boxes, and is able to address issues around race and slavery in 18th century Britain - Belle

Belle is a dramatisation based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman born illegitamately to a slave-woman and an English sea captain, who brings her to England to be raised as his daughter in the house of his Uncle. Here she is raised along with a cousin to be an English Gentlewoman, or as much as both her illegitamacy and skin colour will allow. The film parallels her introduction to society - because we are still firmly in Austin territory here - with her adoptive fathers deliberation over a vital legal case regarding the massacre of slaves held as ships cargo, and what would become a cause celebre from the early abolitionist movement.

This leaves Belle as a film with two distinct strands. The first is the story of a young woman in a delicate social position in a culture that doesn't know how to deal with her any more than she knows how to deal with it. The formalised nature of the period leaves a lot unsaid or ambiguous, a strange dance of opaque motives, with only a few moments of raw truth peeking out. The other is the wider context; of slavery as a national asset, grand politics versus personal morals, and how one can warp and shape the other. These two strands intertwine, but neither really wins out over the other, and neither quite acheives as much depth as perhaps it should.

However, that should not take away from the fundamentals that this is a great - and important to recognise - story, that it's central performances are excellent, and that the direction and screenplay allow it to shine in all the right places. It's delicate and clever, tackling a serious subject straight on, whilst still being rooted in some of the familiar tropes and locales that should make it accessable to a wider audience. It's really good, and I think really important, to recognise these sorts of lives, to remind ourselves that other faces existed in all social strata in the past.