Santa Cruz Good Times

Wednesday
Jul 01st
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Freedom Rings

film freedomMixed-race gentlewoman inspires anti-slavery politics in ‘Belle’

The history of slavery in the Americas did not begin and end with the American South. For centuries, the economy of the lucrative Caribbean sugar islands colonized by European powers depended on imported African slaves. Yet slavery was abolished in the British islands 30 years before the American Civil War—in the courts, not on the battlefield. One possible reason for that is explored in Belle, an engaging, handsomely mounted drawing room drama about a real-life young woman of color who may have had an impact on the legal campaign to end slavery in England.

Belle is the love child of two determined Anglo-African women filmmakers, scriptwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante, who labored for seven years to bring the story to the screen. Their subject is Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of an English sea captain and a slave. Liaisons between white men and slave women were not at all uncommon in the islands, producing generations of mixed-race children. But young Dido’s fate was not common: her father had her raised in gentility by his aristocratic uncle, Lord Mansfield—the Lord Chief Justice of England.

The film begins in 1769 with the child, Dido, arriving in England, and met dockside by the father she has never seen, Captain Sir John Lindsay. Matthew Goode brings his usual panache and conviction to his few brief minutes of screen time as Lindsay. Charmed by the shy young girl, yet obliged to soon depart again for his ship, he tells her, “Know that you are loved, just as I loved your mother.”

Less enthused are the uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkerson and Emily Watson), to whom the young captain delivers his daughter, with instructions to raise her as one of their own blood in his absence. They have no problem with Dido herself, who grows into a lovely young woman (played with grace and spirit by the beauteous Gugu Mbatha-Raw); they love her as devotedly as they do the other great-niece they are raising, fair, blonde Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who becomes Dido’s best friend.

(The cousins’ real-life friendship is well documented in a lively 1779 portrait of the two young women together, the painting of which Asante features in several scenes.)

But there is only so much convention the Mansfields are willing to flout. Given every advantage of money and breeding, Dido is still not allowed to dine with the family when they have guests—mostly because she is “illegitimate.” She cannot be formally introduced into society, like Elizabeth. And matchmaking for both girls’ futures is problematic. Elizabeth has been left penniless by her father, but while Dido inherits a fortune, her prospects depend on finding a suitor willing to “overlook” the circumstances of her birth, yet who is still her equal in class.

The great Miranda Richardson is on board as a scheming dowager who comes sniffing about with her two eligible sons (Tom Felton and James Norton). Also involved is young Davinier (Sam Reid), a clergyman’s son with legal aspirations who awakens Dido to the abolitionists’ cause.

What keeps the tale from becoming too fluffy is the juxtaposition of Dido’s coming-of-age with the celebrated legal case of the slave ship Zong, accused of fraud for jettisoning its “cargo”—human lives—to collect the insurance. Lord Mansfield rules on the case, and the film suggests that his guardianship of Dido, along with the “radical” politics of Davinier and his anti-slavery activists, leads him to this important legal step on the road to abolition.

Historically, while Mansfield heard the Zong case, it was his ruling on an earlier slave case that is now thought to have paved the way for the end of slavery in England and (much later) her colonies. The film’s romantic subplots are also fabricated, and while Davinier appears in Dido’s real-life biography, there’s no evidence he was an abolitionist firebrand.

Yet despite (or more likely because of) these fabrications, Belle succeeds as an effective portrait of a singular young woman understanding her own identity, and of a political era in which men of principle still dared to confront the moral issues of the day.


BELLE *** (out of four) With Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkerson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, and Sam Reid. Written by Misan Sagay. Directed by Amma Asante. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG. 105 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

I Was a Teenage Deadhead

Memories of life on tour, plus the truth about that legendary Santa Cruz Acid Test

 

I Build a Lighted House and Therein Dwell

Wednesday, June 24, Chiron turns stationary retrograde (we turn inward) at 21.33 degrees Pisces. We usually speak of “retrograde” when referring to Mercury. But all planets retrograde. Next month in July, Venus retrogrades. What is Chiron retrograde? Chiron represents the wound within all of us. Wounds have purpose. They sensitize us; make us aware of pain and suffering. Through our wounds we develop compassion. Through compassion we become whole (holy) again. Chiron helps develop these states of consciousness. Everyone carries a wound. Everyone carries family wounds (family astrology tracks the astrological “DNA” through generations). Chiron wounds are deep within. We’re often not aware of them until Chiron retrogrades. Then the wounds (through pain, hurt, sadness, suffering) become apparent. They seem to break us open emotionally, psychologically. Painful events from the past are remembered. They are brought to the present for healing. Through experiencing, talking about and deeply feeling what is hurting us, healing takes place. We begin to understand and bring healing to others. All week, Jupiter and Venus move closer together in the sky. They meet in Leo at the full moon, Cancer solar festival, on Wednesday, July 1. The Cancer keynote is, “I build a lighted house and therein dwell.” The soul’s light has finally penetrated the “womb” of matter. The New Group of World Servers is to radiate this light. At the end of each sign are keywords to use and remember during the Chiron retrograde.

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Film, Times & Events: Week of June 26

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Kickin' Chicken

Local kitchen alchemist Justin Williams is fast becoming a cult flavor master. His late-night wizardry, which began last fall delivering mainly to starving UCSC students, is catching on with taste buds beyond campus. Kickin’ Chicken delivers its spicy-sweet fried chicken and waffles to Westside residents between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. nightly. Or you can catch him and his brother and sister, Candice and Danny Mendoza, serving it up at their “Sunday Mass” at the Santa Cruz Food Lounge at 1001 Center St. in Santa Cruz. Using sous vide, a French method of cooking chicken in a water bath at a tightly controlled temperature, they then flash fry it for an amazingly crispy coat. Candice Mendoza spoke to GT about Kickin’ Chicken’s rise.

 

What’s a creative new approach to addressing summer beach litter?

Robotic dogs, with duct tape on their paws, that walk around picking up litter wherever they go. Joaquin Heinz, Santa Cruz, Barista

 

Pelican Ranch Winery

The most popular red wines found on store shelves are also those most commonly known, such as Pinot, Zinfandel and Merlot. But when you come across a more unusual varietal, like Pelican Ranch Winery’s Cinsault ($19), it opens up a whole new world. Cinsault is a grape that can tolerate heat, so it is found in countries with warmer climes such as Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, and France. It’s rare in California but grows well in places like Lodi—Silvaspoons Vineyard in this particular case—where it’s hot and dry. Often used as a blending grape, the silky Cinsault is just fine on its own.

 

Open Wide

Soif’s soft reboot leads to expanded menu, plus the ‘thinking woman’s ketchup’