Directed By: Amma Asante

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, and Tom Felton

2013 was a year full of movies about the plight of the black man.  We saw Solomon Northrup endure hell until freedom was opportunity in 12 Years a Slave.  We saw Cecil Gaines quietly smile as history marched onward for better or worse right in front of him at the White House in Lee Daniels' The Butler.  We even saw Oscar Grant have what can at best be called a New Year's celebration that went terribly awry in Fruitvale Station.  While I'm ecstatic that black men like myself have gotten some substantive screen time, where's the love for black women?  We've hardly gotten a cinematic introduction to their plight.  Well, things are changing.  This weekend's period indie drama Belle is a sign of the times.

The year is 1769.  Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), an officer of the Royal Navy, has a mixed race daughter named Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  When her mother dies, he opts to send her to live with his uncle and aunt Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) at their estate the Kenwood House.  Lord Mansfield is actually the Lord Chief Justice and is one of the most influential men in all of England.  He takes Dido in so that she can "know her place" in society" as a lady with the Mansfield name.  Keeping her under the guise of being a playmate for her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), the Lord Chief Justice has no idea what his defiance of all societal conventions will really mean.

Over the years, Dido and Elizabeth become more like sisters than cousins.  The only difference is that Dido can never eat dinner with her family because of her black heritage.  All grown up, this difference becomes starker and clearer to Dido with each passing day.  As Lady Mansfield helps her dear niece Elizabeth to find a husband to take care of her, Lord Mansfield hands Dido the keys to Kenwood House so that she can live an unmarried life in isolation much like her lonely aunt Mary (Penelope Wilton).  Barbaric societal conventions can't keep a good woman down, however.  Her uncle's pupil John Davinier (Sam Reid) is the evidence.  Meanwhile, Lord Mansfield must decide on a case pitting slave traders against insurance companies that could set in motion the abolition of slavery in Britain.

At a time when the Supreme Court has declared racism dead, a time when Donald Sterling refuses to take pictures with black men including the likes of Magic Johnson, and a time when nutcase Cliven Bundy has delivered a vitriolic prescription for the problems that African-Americans face from his ill-informed perspective, Belle is a much-needed film.  Though the movie is British, this period piece is an applicable, polite reminder of the atrocities that have been committed upon blacks over the centuries.  It's a reminder of how the poisonous notions of prejudice and discrimination can pervade and persist in society.  It's a reminder of how harsh the world really was and how hard meaningful change still is.  That's what we need right about now given the racist undercurrent prominent in certain parts of our society today.

I lied earlier in the review when I said that this is a movie about the plight of black women.  Belle is equally as much a movie about white woman.  What I mean by this is that we delve into the isolated world of what it means to be biracial.  Deftly portrayed by the talented and beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw, our titular character Dido Belle is the evidence of this.  Because of her upper class white heritage, she's too high to engage with the common folk.  Because of her black heritage, she's simultaneously too low to publicly engage with her family, especially in formal settings.  By showcasing this particularly isolated soul, the film takes a nuanced look at the racial constructs of eighteenth century England and how hatred and a sense of superiority infect the hearts and minds of everyone around Dido.  It even infects the artwork.  All the while, Dido must fight to live life as she sees fit against seemingly insurmountable societal notions and the cultural conditioning to which she's been acclimated at the Kenwood House.  Because of her mixed background, Dido has superior social status in name only.  Her life is unequivocally inferior to that of her peer Elizabeth, and Amma Asante has no problem exploring this misguided world.

While the film highlights what must be a confounding life as a biracial woman in oppressive colonial England, it also explores what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society.  According to Dido's sister-cousin Elizabeth, women are nothing more than property to men.  As Asante introduces us to the world of matchmaking in England, moviegoers get a front row seat to witness how true this statement from Elizabeth really is.  The most telling indicator is how finding a suitor is just a big game of Deal or No Deal in which rich men are looking to invest solely in their own futures.  They’re all ideally looking for an attractive woman who has deep pockets.  The consequences of this are crystal clear with Dido's aunt Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, neither of whom are flush with cash.  Ultimately, this all puts Dido in a doubly awful position.  As a confused individual of a mixed race heritage, she must contend with the oppressive societal conventions only in place to bind her and anyone else born with a black face.  At the same time, she must contend with the possessive nature of men and the potential for a confining life with them, even if only a handful will genuinely consider her for matrimony.

I have to give the actors in Belle credit for really bringing their characters to life and giving meaning to the rich dialogue that's been written for each of them.  As Dido, Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings a fiery poise to the screen.  She can be a gentle flower in one moment and a sharp-tongued truth teller in another.  Blending an array of emotions, Mbatha-Raw gives quite an impressive performance that conveys the complex internal struggles her character faces given her mixed race heritage.  As Lord and Lady Mansfield, Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson each give rather subversive performances as their characters must embrace the reality that taking in Dido and raising her has been equally helpful and hurtful for the young woman.  As Aunt Mary, Penelope Wilton provides comic relief but more importantly serves as a sad, clear reminder of the challenges and expectations women faced in that era.  Lastly, we have Tom Felton as the insufferable racist James Ashford.  The Harry Potter star once again rises to the occasion and demonstrates that he has an undeniable talent for giving us antagonists we can truly detest.

I’m headed to my reunions for my alma mater Princeton in a couple of weeks and am looking forward to seeing many old familiar faces.  Recently, however, I saw the I, Too, Am Princeton campaign online and was inspired to see undergraduates challenging the stereotypes and perceptions of their privileged white peers.  It makes me reflect on the many unenviable occasions when I was the only minority in the classroom and could to some degree relate to the lonely position in which Dido Belle finds herself at every waking moment throughout the movie and these students find themselves everyday on campus.  Living in the DC area now, I’ve effectively found myself in chocolate city, so I can’t relate quite as much now.  But I digress.  All in all, Belle is a timely piece of cinema that reminds us of what the world was, how far we've come, and how far we have to go.  With strong direction and powerful acting, the film comprehensively tackles themes of race, class, and gender in a surprisingly nuanced manner.  Have some wine coolers with this excellent indie flick.  Belle gets a strong 0.03% rating.