Overview: Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of a British Naval officer born out of wedlock, is raised by the noble Mansfield family as a dignified member of the household. Fox Searchlight Pictures. 2014. Rated PG. 104 Minutes.
A Nod to My Childhood: As a Disney-raised child, when I hear the name “Belle” in film context, I immediately recall the bibliophile who falls for a beast. In some ways, this default comparison to the animated work The Beauty and the Beast is not a wasted one. From an early scene in which we first see Dido cradling a book in her hands, there is inspired in the audience a collective stillness. It’s a recognizable feeling for those of us once swept away by the learned cartoon heroine. Although fleeting and with no direct relation to the progress of the story, the rose makes an appearance in Belle, too. Lastly, of course, the comparison would not be complete without the emergence of a beast.
A Beastly Social Attitude: This film’s beast is one that’s always existed. Reach back to the early 1700’s of England, where the story takes place. Fast forward to 1950’s America. Return to present-day. The beast is there. Nauseating. Inhumane. Growling beneath the slick fur of society. As Dido is exposed to the world beyond the property lines, she becomes conscious of her mixed bloodlines and the implications they hold. It is an intolerance that has informed history all the way to the present moment: a social status defined because her genetic bloodline reaches back to a particular geographic location, where certain populations inhabiting a specific region close to the equator produce more melatonin and as such have darker, pigmented skin tones. And a lower standing in class.
Shatter the Stereotype: Belle is one of the rare films that forces us to look at the world that we live in, a world of color, wherein the spectrum has always been the same. Yet, we fail to apply the diverse tones even to our imagined future. Consider: in the hit young adult dystopian novel The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is textually described as a dark-haired girl with grey eyes and olive skin. And yet, Jennifer Lawrence was gifted the role in the film trilogy. Or let us explore our expressions of fantasy. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a realm of entirely fictional beings, there exists not one character of color. In Belle, Dido Belle (played with astonishing presence by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) exists in a reality in which these strict Euro-centric standards of beauty and normality were more explicit than implicit, more consciously expressed than subconsciously manifested. As a woman, Dido is the princess I wish to see represented to younger generations of women. Belle could not have come at a more opportune time. She embodies the message of the current twitter activist movement #YesAllWomen. She is forthright in affirming that woman is no accessory to man. She is beautiful and strong, not only in the flesh, but in the mind.
Final Thoughts: There are tales, songs, and movies I am eager to share when I have children of my own. Belle is now one of them.