'Belle of the Black Atlantic: Two Views of Black Identity In Historical Drama Films', by Mel Campbell

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Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, by Johann Zoffany. Originally hosted at the Wikimedia Commons.

The romantic drama Belle, directed by Amma Asante, is the latest in a recent spate of costume dramas that offer audiences fresh modes of spectating black history. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) is a vivid, unflinching account of free American Solomon Northup’s ordeal after being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011) makes the racial politics of Emily Brontë’s novel explicit by casting a black actor as Heathcliff in a moody, textural adaptation. And Black Venus (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2010) tells the sad story of Sarah Baartman, the so-called ‘Hottentot Venus’ who was exhibited in Europe as a human curiosity, with gritty, gruelling realism. Notably, none of these directors is a white man.

Belle takes as its inspiration a 1779 painting attributed to Johann Zoffany and now housed at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland. It’s a portrait of two teenage English girls, richly clad in silks and jewels. Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) has dark skin, and Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825) has pale skin.

Dido’s vivacity is striking. But, more unusually for its period, the two are depicted not as white mistress and black servant, but affectionately, as friends and contemporaries. Indeed, they were cousins.

Belle focuses on the social and legal implications of Dido’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) upbringing as a gentlewoman alongside Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) in the household of their great-uncle William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England, as he hears a case that will come to be considered a landmark by the growing lobby to abolish slavery.

Belle, 12 Years A Slave, Wuthering Heights and Black Venus are all Black Atlantic films: historical stories set in motion by the transport of African people across the Atlantic Ocean through the economic institution of slavery. It’s no accident that Belle’s narrative pivots on the 1781 voyage of the slave ship Zong. This ill-fated Middle Passage – the historical term for the second leg of the triangular Atlantic trade route that delivered enslaved Africans to the Americas – saw 142 Africans deliberately thrown overboard and then claimed on insurance as ‘lost cargo’.

This map sketches the journeys of the four films’ protagonists along routes smoothed by trans-Atlantic slavery. Belle, Solomon, Heathcliff and Sarah travelled across oceans, along rivers and through port cities, to fetch up in white-populated hinterlands where they appeared strange, exotic and, at worst, no longer even human.

View 1: “Unexpected characters in expected worlds”

Solomon Northup’s parents were free people of colour. This distinct social caste emerged to delineate former slaves and mixed-race individuals who often owed their social and legal standing to recognition from white relatives, benefactors or former owners. In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is discovered on the streets of Liverpool – a major slave-trading port – and adopted by kindly Mr Earnshaw. Despite his ill use by Earnshaw’s son Hindley, he’s able to make his fortune and return as a ‘gentleman’.

This was not too far from Dido Belle’s situation. Belle opens in Bristol, from where, between 1700 and 1807, more than 2,000 slave ships sailed to abduct a conservatively estimated half a million Africans. Six-year-old Dido (Lauren Julien-Box) is whisked away by her glamorous father, Royal Navy Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), and installed in the bosom of his noble family.

Appropriately for a film inspired by an artwork, Belle is about spectacle. Its major dramatic tension is between its characters’ feelings and their appearances. It strongly demarcates public and private spheres, and its characters are preoccupied with whether they can be seen, and how their behaviour will look.

Belle’s director Amma Asante says, “It was very important to place this unexpected character in a very expected world. The important thing about the real Dido was that she existed in that classic, Jane Austen world. So we went for classic all the way. The name of the game for everybody involved in this film was beauty, beauty, beauty.”

Screenwriter Misan Sagay adds, “I felt this was somebody who was experiencing Jane Austen’s England as a black woman in a very different way from the way you normally would have thought.”

While Austen’s novels are actually set forty-odd years after Dido’s time, Belle’s sedate style, intimate, yearning tone and classically resolved romance narrative are not substantially different to those of Austen adaptations. Belle is also in the same tasteful tradition as costume dramas including The Duchess (Saul Dibb, 2008) and A Royal Affair (Nicolaj Arcel, 2012), which focus on women’s struggle to find romantic happiness in the face of social obstacles.

The irony of Belle’s taking such a modern, revisionist view of history is that, both aesthetically and narratively, it’s expressed in such a cosy, old-fashioned way.

The film wants us to see Dido as unique in polite society, both made desirably exotic and unfairly disadvantaged by the accident of her birth. The irony of Belle’s taking such a modern, revisionist view of history is that, both aesthetically and narratively, it’s expressed in such a cosy, old-fashioned way. As a viewer, it’s tremendously satisfying to watch this pageant of wigs and brocades: to rejoice at its unambiguously good heroes and pantomimishly evil villains, and to witness Dido enjoy the fruits of racially enlightened marital happiness.

In his 1993 book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, British theorist Paul Gilroy argues for a transnational conception of black culture. The notion of an authentic, ethnically homogenous ‘homeland’ is central to racism (“Go back to where you came from”), but in reality, people displaced by the Atlantic slave trade can never return. They have much more in common with one another than with any of the places from which they and their forebears were stolen, or with the nation-states that absorbed them.

What Gilroy suggests the people of the Black Atlantic share is a hybrid, liminal identity – one forged by cultural exchange. They are simultaneously African and European, existing uneasily in the in-between spaces of their times. Furthermore, Gilroy argues that this hybridity works both ways; Western culture has also absorbed influences from its subalterns.

Viewing Belle, 12 Years A Slave, Wuthering Heights, and Black Venus separately, we may view the protagonists as exceptional because of their blackness in a white world (or, in Solomon Northup’s case, ‘whiteness’ in a black world). Dido Belle becomes a romantic heroine not just by virtue of her intelligence, cultural sophistication, transcendence of class barriers, and capacity for love, but because these qualities are deemed unusual within historical contexts (“expected worlds”) that deny agency to people like her, Solomon Northup, Heathcliff, and Sarah Baartman, solely on the basis of their skin colour.

But when we consider these four historical dramas together as Black Atlantic narratives, we can see that rather than being exceptional, the black protagonists are representative. All four films are set during the 18th and 19th centuries at the height of the Atlantic slave trade, which dispersed a conservative estimate of 12 million Africans across the Atlantic.

It’s confronting to realise that at the end of the 18th century, Dido was one of between 5,000 and 10,000 black people living in London. Sarah Baartman was only one of many Africans exhibited in Europe for entertainment, or examined to further racist scientific theories. Likewise, many free Americans were kidnapped into slavery, but few apart from Solomon Northup had the opportunity to publish a memoir about it.

View 2: “Tiptoes in the mud”

One of the most powerful scenes in 12 Years A Slave occurs after the white plantation supervisor Tibeats (Paul Dano) attempts to lynch Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in revenge for intellectually and then physically humiliating him. Noosed from a tree, Solomon tiptoes in the mud to prevent himself from being hanged. He stands like this for hours, as everyday plantation life continues around him, until his kindly but craven master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives home and cuts him down.

The duration of this beautifully framed shot – the accumulated weight of the camera’s implacable gaze – is intended to disconcert and distress. Rather than immersing the audience naturalistically in the mise-en-scène, as Asante does in Belle, McQueen creates cognitive dissonance: we must watch as almost nobody aids a man in distress. Such is the abject cruelty of slavery.

Still, McQueen’s vision of abjection is somehow classical. 12 Years A Slave doesn’t shrink from the horror of rape, the grief of separation, or the mortification of flesh by the whip. But it conveys these emotions with an elegant composure reminiscent of McQueen’s fine art background; he makes Patricia Norris’s Oscar-winning slave costumes look almost painterly in their shades of mud and bone.

Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights features many similar motifs of degradation and defilement. Pubescent Cathy and Heathcliff (Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave) wrestle proto-sexually in the mud; the bully Hindley (Lee Shaw) whips young Heathcliff; jaded adult Heathcliff (James Howson) callously hangs Isabella Linton’s (Nichola Burley) lapdog on a gate by its collar.

But even at its most abject (not even 12 Years A Slave resorts to the kind of in-grave necrophilia hinted at in Wuthering Heights), the film’s gaze is powerfully subjective and impressionistic. Arnold frames faces and bodies against stark landscapes, bathed in ambient light. As Heathcliff blinks and rubs his eyes, the camera blurs, then refocuses on textures and small gestures in a myopically shallow depth of field.

Evoking intimacy yet keeping the viewer tastefully at arm’s length, Arnold underscores the harsh reminders in Heathcliff’s world that he doesn’t deserve his tender closeness to Cathy. Like the viewer, he’s always on the outside looking in. Much more effectively than the conventional period pageant adaptations that preceded it, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights summons Brontë’s central theme: that because Heathcliff and Cathy’s desire is forbidden, it decays into a cycle of death and wrath that will poison the Heathcliff, Earnshaw, and Linton families for another generation to come.

Belle is determined to hit all the story beats of an Austen marriage plot, and is thus toothless to convey the true hypocrisy that ruled Dido Belle’s life.

Belle, on the other hand, is determined to hit all the story beats of an Austen marriage plot, and is thus toothless to convey the true hypocrisy that ruled Dido Belle’s life. The injustices pile up, but they don’t sting, because we know Dido will eventually be ‘rescued’ from them.

Dido’s aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle cherish her, yet she’s not permitted to dine with them in polite company. The snobbish Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) lobs racial slurs at Dido, yet nonetheless plots to marry her to her younger son Oliver (James Norton) in order to snag the generous annuity Dido has inherited from her never-seen-onscreen-again father. And Oliver’s loathsome elder brother James (Tom ‘Guess I’ll Just Play Villains Forever’ Felton) perpetrates a brusque sexual assault on Dido because he knows it will hurt her and he will get away with it.

More importantly, we see Dido learn from her uncle’s earnest yet socially lowly law clerk, John Davinier (Sam Reid), that Lord Mansfield is about to rule on the Zong slave ship insurance appeal. Because Davinier champions the humanity of the ship’s callously jettisoned ‘cargo’, Dido realises he is her perfect match, because he sees her as an individual to be adored, not a racial curiosity to be tolerated.

But the “beauty, beauty, beauty” of Belle’s chosen genre smoothes away the true horror of what happened on board that ship. Indeed, it’s horrifying in another way that Belle treats a massacre as a meet-cute and a catalyst for its most satisfying of happy endings. At the film’s climax, Dido sneaks into the public gallery to watch her uncle give his (gratifyingly liberal-minded) verdict in the case. Afterwards, Mansfield gives Davinier a job – his social position is assured! – then Dido pashes Davinier in the street outside the courthouse. I shit you not.

Abdellatif Kechiche is perhaps even fonder of uncomfortable extended shots than McQueen, but there is nothing beautiful about Black Venus. What makes it so hard to watch isn’t just the three-hour runtime but also its deliberately ugly, clumsily shot prurience. With its woozy camera and leering reaction shots, at times it feels like a reality TV show in period costume.

It’s symbolising the ugliness of colonialism, of course. But Kechiche also uses this awkward, crude abjection strategically, to show the inadequacy of the historical biopic for the task of conveying true suffering. When I first reviewed the film, I felt the inscrutability of Sarah Baartman (Yahima Torres) was a failure; now I realise it’s a triumph. Black Venus makes audiences realise what complicity in slavery means: the belief that someone’s essential self is a spectacle for your eyes.

Belle, by contrast, seeks to make its protagonist lovable in order to inspire indignation at her oppression. Its politics are shrewdest when Dido meets Mabel (Bethan Mary-James), a cheerful black maid in her uncle’s London household who teaches Dido to comb her hair properly. For the first time, Dido recognises an intersection between race and class, sensing the racial solidarity her social position has cost her.

But such discomforts are fleeting and soon forgotten. Belle is perfectly enjoyable to watch. Too enjoyable. Unlike other recent films about black identity and the impact of slavery, it keeps its toes out of the mud. And in insisting on its protagonist’s exceptionalism in an “expected world”, it only ventriloquises what we wish people in the past had thought, felt, and said.

 

Belle is now in cinemas.

Mel Campbell is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist, cultural critic, and author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit.