Movie review: Belle (2013)

Focused on mid-18th century England, Belle is a fascinating look at the intermingling of views concerning race, wealth, and station.

The movie is based on a true story: the supreme court decision in England concerning whether or not an insurance company must pay for African slaves thrown overboard en route in order to save the lives of others on the ship. The opposition’s position—supported by evidence—is that the slaves were suffering from disease, and thus with blatant disregard for human life, they were thrown overboard to attain reparations from insurance. The slaves were killed for financial gain; they were worth more dead than alive.

Against this backdrop a man of English nobility plucks his daughter of mixed-race from the slums and deposits her at his uncle’s estate before departing for a maritime appointment. According to the law, being of noble blood, she can be raised on the country estate.

The aunt and uncle are appalled; it is simply not fitting to raise a child with any African blood as noble. But they make the best of the bad situation, raising Dido (Dido Elizabeth Belle) to be a cultured English lady and a close companion to another niece they are raising.

However, there are limits. Dido cannot dinner with the family when there are guests. It would offend the guests. And she would not be coming out to find a husband like her cousin is.

In addition to the focus on race, the movie sheds a painful light on the England view of wealth and station. Both young men and women go through the dance of finding a marriage partner who can provide status and/or wealth. Only the first-born male inherits. He must find a wife from women of status. The other sons look for women also of their rank but more importantly, women who have wealth to bring to the marriage.

Dido originally is told that marriage is not an option for her. Her father died at sea, leaving her an inheritance. So thankfully, she has wealth and status, but her status is compromised by her race. Conversely, her cousin has status but no inheritance.

The movie explores questions of women as property, marriage as enslavement, racial slavery as morally wrong. It does so against the backdrop of the Zong case that helped hasten the abolition of slavery in England.

Dido is definitely a movie to see for the history of slavery (racial and marital) in 18th century England.

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