In keeping with my New Year’s resolution to watch as much independent film as I possibly can this year, I caught Belle in the opening week and found myself amply rewarded for my dedication. It was quite incredible. It pulled all my levers: Romance, Exquisite costume and scenery, arrestingly beautiful woman of color in the starring role, thought-provoking probe into the roots slavery. A word here about slavery films: I can’t do them. I just can’t. The last one I saw was Amistad, and that was years after its release. So I haven’t seen 12 Years A Slave or Django, and I won’t. I think the simple reason is that they make me unhappy without teaching me anything new on the subject.
It probably all started with Roots. I was about 12 when it was released in London, and it was a BIG DEAL. I mean, the kind of thing where every family I knew was crammed into the living room (back then in London it was definitely one telly per household) watching with bated breath as Kunta Kinte’s story unfolded. I adored it. I’d never seen so many black actors in one place. I had no idea that some of them, such as Cicely Tyson, were icons. I just watched in amazement. But even then, slavery films led to tension. Case in point, the next day at school a friend of mine, an Anglo-Irish girl, told us that as soon as Roots was over, she headed outside to buy some sweets with a group of her friends (all white) and hang out for a bit. On the way to the sweet shop, they had to pass through a tunnel and coming in the opposite direction, was a group of black girls, likely on a similar mission. Because it was a tunnel, when they came face to face, they had to side-step so that everyone could get by. My friend accidentally elbow-bumped one of the black girls as they passed each other and the girl swung around enraged and screamed:
“Don’t you dare f**king push me! I’M NOT YOUR SLAVE ANYMORE!”
Needless to say, my friend and her posse booked it out of the tunnel.
So, since the tender age of 12, I’ve avoided slavery films. Belle, however, isn’t properly a slavery film because while it explores the topic you don’t get to see anybody chained up or hear the words “Massa” or “Boy”. Feel me? It fits more squarely into the genre of period drama, and I love period dramas. I can say hand on heart that I have seen every Merchant Ivory film ever made. Belle tells the story of a noblewoman in late-18th-century England of mixed English and African ancestry, the first mixed-race woman to be raised as an aristocrat. Her unique circumstances helped bring England ever closer to eventual abolition. I’m not going to outline the plot, because that would give too much away. All I will say is, if you see only one film this year, it should be this one.