Growing up, like a lot of little girls, I enjoyed “Fairy Tales.” But not the weird “Princess culture” fairy tales of today, but the dark, weird Grimm Fairy tales that, when you really thought about it, were quite disturbing. Hence, when I saw “The Little Mermaid” as a kid, I’d already read the source material and was relieved when it didn’t end in suicide.
(Even if it had sort of lost that whole, “Don’t give up your life and talent for some dude you just met” lesson by making it all worth it for the titular Mermaid in the end.)
Amma Assante’s “Belle,” is a bit like a modern fairy tale. The main character isn’t a princess, but there is a certain “Cinderella” element to the story, where a young, “mulatto” motherless street urchin is picked up and whisked away to a life of excess when she learns her father is a kind aristocrat.
Based on a true story, “Belle” follows some familiar rags to riches tropes that will feel more loving well-worn than cliche, but with the new “Jane Austen tackles race” sort of way. Belle, and her cousin-sister-best friend Elizabeth grow up together trapped in the British Empire’s class riddled way of doing things. Elizabeth, while being an aristocrat’s daughter is without finance as her father as remarried and forgotten about her. Belle is without father and obviously black (as people keep pointing out to her), but is able to inherit her father’s wealth due to laws that protect her rights as the heir. And the fact that her father actually loved her. Elizabeth, who is pursued by men passionately at first, then dropped the minute they learn she’s broke seems headed for impoverish spinsterhood if she can’t woo a rich man to improve her station in life. Belle is so wealthy she doesn’t need to marry, but society still expects her to, and she’s expected to try to marry “above her station” even if the match is with a gross fetishist from a family of virulent racists. Belle is too high in class to eat with the servants, but to low in class to eat with her family when they have company over.
Rules of the British aristocracy are pretty ridiculous, and they get more absurd when you throw in race. Being modern and American, all this did was remind me why I was glad I was born in 1977 and not 1667. Because this whole situation, for Belle (called Dido in the film) is cruel and moronic for both herself and her sister. Both essentially are trapped in situations where they are simply waiting property (with Belle actually being former property), fighting to be claimed by the lesser of two brutish and gross aristocratic assholes. In the background is a legal case about the purposeful drowning of sick slaves from a slave ship and the slavers attempting to commit insurance fraud, claiming the slaves had to be murdered because the ship was running low on supplies.
Again, that whole notion is garish, as the transport of slaves in Middle Passage involved nightmare conditions and being packed in the ship so tightly, in unsanitary, in human conditions, out-breaks of disease weren’t out of the norm. And a few people in the film, who are not people of color, immediately recognize how garish that is. I was glad the film showed this as I’ve, on many occasions, had to endure the ignorant claim of so-called historians, who argue that slavery was simply “of the time” and “normalized,” ignoring the fact that chattel slavery — where you’re a slave, your children are slaves and your children’s children are slaves in perpetuity so they can die harvesting sugar, tobacco and cotton — was always controversial and there were always people who felt this was an immoral, disgusting institution.
But Belle doesn’t really show those horrors, it only alludes to them, unlike “12 Years A Slave,” which for some odd reason people were comparing “Belle” to. This makes no sense, as “Belle” is something you should bring your 10 year old daughter to, and she’ll be captivated while getting a brief lesson on how stupid racism, sexism and the aristocracy is while enjoying the romance and pretty dresses. “12 Years A Slave” is beautifully filmed but devastating torture porn, showing the end game to the nightmare “Belle” only hints at.
Should you see Belle? The answer is yes if you are:
A) Someone who loves Jane Austen novels, but always was like, “Why can’t a black woman get Mr. Darcy?”
B) Teenagers or little girls who love “princess” films and would get some affirmation out of seeing a real-life version of the Disney films they’ve enjoyed starring a black woman. Happy ending and all.
C) People, of all races, who enjoy sweetly told, but not too heavy cinema.
“Belle” despite its weighty subject matter, is actually fairly light, goes down smoothly and is even sort of fun … if you don’t think about all the slavery going on under the surface. As someone versed in their history, even though I knew at no point the main character would be kidnapped and forced back into slavery that terror was lurking in every corner and placing a deathly pall over the proceedings, even if it does have a happy ending. Every time she left the estate, I was in fear for her life, and if you’re black and know your history and you watch the film, you’ll be thinking the same thing.
(OH GOD, BELLE, STAY AT HOME! WHAT IF A SLAVER SLIPS YOU A MICKEY AND KIDNAPS YOU!!!”)
But that doesn’t happen. We get a happy ending. Not a “happy ending,” where we lost the fight but “won” the long game, but an actual, neatly wrapped up happy ending. Most black historical films almost always end horribly unless they’re about sports because, quite frankly, a lot of horrible things have happened to us as a people. (Case in point: “Glory.”) You couldn’t make a Civil Rights Era film or a realistic movie about slavery without raking up a body count because the price of freedom is paid in bloodshed.
No one dies for Belle’s freedom. She’s merely born into it and her father, not being a racist jerk, claims her and demands she receive her birthright. But watching I couldn’t help but think of my own reddish brown skin and think of the long, long history of white men who fathered black children through rape and never gave another though about them, other than maybe what they’d fetch at an auction. So if Belle “fails” at anything it is that Asante preferred to focus on the love that can grow out of a disgusting enterprise like slavery, rather than all the misery and hate. And, seriously, I can’t necessarily blame her. Belle’s story is one that has it’s place and deserves to be told. Everything can’t be “12 Years A Slave,” we’d all go crazy.
Besides, if you want to scar your child for life or fill them with rage at our oppression, you can always show them “Glory,” “Roots,” “Amistad,” “12 Years A Slave,” “Rosewood,” “Mandigo,” (but please, do not show them “Mandingo”), “The Great White Hope,” “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Malcolm X” or that “King” miniseries from the 1980s I refuse to ever watch again (along with “Glory”) because I don’t feel like crying for three hours afterwards. No, “Belle” is more in the “Eve’s Bayou” category of black cinema, where it’s different, it’s well made, it will make you cry (but in a good way), shows a side of black life rarely seen, and you can bring your kids to it.
So bring a kid and show it some support if it’s at a theater near you. It needs it if you want to see more black filmmakers get the backing and encouragement to showcase a variety of black experiences, not just just black people as accessories to the white protagonist and Tyler Perry productions-cum-Spike Lee “Joints.”