Cinderella of the 17th Century
Belle emerges as a colored girl’s Cinderella, with enough swoon-worthy moments to deter from the harsh reality that surrounds the romance.
Romance consumes the film, beginning with the relationship between Dido’s parents. The movie features a confession from Sir Lindsay himself where he admits to loving Dido’s mother. However, their initial meeting on a West Indies slave ship is hardly comparable to lusty gazes in a bar.
Dido’s mother was Lindsay’s concubine aboard the slave ship in which he worked. So, while love may (or may not) have developed between the two, the initial contact was most likely not consensual.
The romancing of rape veils the alleviation of black women as victims of sexual assault. The love component implies that black women and white male interactions are always the product of love, insulting the lust and optional consent that accompanied most encounters.
An Imitation of Life?
Upon first arriving in the mansion, Dido notices a young black servant at the knees of his master. At first I attributed Dido’s interest in the painting as reflective of her seeing herself in the child. I now see that Dido’s interest was more an observation of her placement in society.
With that said, the viewers of the film are also romanced in the portrayal of Dido’s now famous portrait. The film depicts the portrait with Dido seated alongside her sister- cousin Elizabeth. The revelation of this portrait emerges after Dido’s initial reservation. Dido’s reservation stemmed from her fear of being painted in a subjugated position next to her sister- cousin.
The actual photograph was actually vastly different from its reenactment in the film. The film romances the degradation of the original portrait in the juxtaposition of t the two women. The actual portrait depicts the two women positioned to represent their position in society. Elizabeth is painted so that she is completely facing forward. We see her entire dress, and she is gently holding a book. Dido is placed behind her, and although her face is positioned forward, her body isn’t. Her posture isn’t straight, as she appears to be running and she is carrying flowers.
Dido’s feature in the portrait seems almost accidental, paralleling a contemporary version of a “photo bomb” when the image of another is intentionally captured in the portrait of someone else.
The picture is praised for its juxtaposition of a black and white woman the seventeenth century. However, the showcase of Dido’s beauty does not negate her subjugated positioning. In fact, Dido was initially believed to be the maid of Elizabeth until a study in the 1980s proved otherwise. Thus, the films portrayal of the famous portrait romances a reality of racist perceptions that didn’t falter in the initial portrait.
The Armor of a White Savior
Viewers are also romanced by John Danvier, cast as this film’s Prince Charming. John Danvier emerges as a well- spoken knight in shining armor that saves Belle from the oblivion of her culture. As Prince Charming, Danvier, a modest clergyman, performs in the pattern of white outcasts who lend a helping hand to their colored counterparts. His presence is unsettling as it implies that a woman needs a man in order to love herself and perhaps more problematically, a black woman needs a white man to embrace her blackness. His lines are perfectly delivered with passion and precision, yet his presence is self- serving in the belief of white presence as necessary in black identity,
The overt and silent racists
The white male lust for the black female body is portrayed in Elizabeth’s once suitor James Ashford, who incidentally is this film’s villain. James is overt in his disgust with Dido and her blackness. This disgust we learn masks his desire. In an attempt to reverse his younger brother’s attraction to Dido, he informs Oliver that “one does not make a wife of the rare and exotic. One samples it on the coast of the indies and decorates his home with an English rose.” With this quote James encourages his younger brother to scratch the itch of lust through rape, but to choose a porcelain doll as a wife. James manifests these words after sexually assaulting Dido at the garden party. James is in disbelief that Dido had never been manhandled, suggesting that sexual violation is an attribute of black femininity. James’ vulgar engagement with Dido works as an attempt to cast the burden of white male lust onto the black female body. James’ words and behavior also bear an unsettling parallel to the relations between Dido’s parents.
Interestingly, James words work to denigrate blackness and femininity, but are condescending to all women. Thus, all his actions from love, to violence and violation are a reflection of his white male privilege. The portrayal of James is painfully accurate as he captures the essence of white male supremacy. However, the movie romances as this ideology is presented as a minority and not a majority mindset.
Despite, James’ representation of those who cure sexual curiosity through rape, his brother Olivier is not the lesser of two evils. Although once suitor a suitor for Dido’s hand, Oliver is a silent racist. Silent racists seem post- racial, but resent blackness as intensely as their more obvious counterparts. Silent racists are commonly attracted to blacks, and often engage in platonic and romantic relationships where their forgiveness is often mistaken for friendliness.
Oliver’s prejudice surfaces in his encouragement of Belle to forget her black ancestry. In speaking of Dido’s mother he states: “Why should anyone even speak of her when your better half has afforded you such privilege.” This statement embodies the denigration of common post-racial phrase “ I do not see color.” While this sounds progressive, not seeing color acts as erasure to those of African descent. Thus, Oliver’s not seeing color when he looks at Belle, paints her in porcelain, stripping her of her African heritage.
Between Black Women: The Bonds of Sisterhood
Perhaps the most resounding moment of the film was Dido’s hair tutorial from Mable, a black female servant. After noticing her struggle, Mable informs Belle that her curls are best tackled if she begins to detangle them from the bottom. She then remarks that her hair knowledge came from her mother. Mable’s ability to help a sister in need implies that the bonds of sisterhood between black women are instrumental in compensating for maternal loss.
Parallels with Plight of the Africans in America
Despite being central to the story, Dido’s mother Belle is noticeably absent from the film. Omitted entirely from the film, Belle’s legacy lives on in the hue she has left her daughter. Belle’s absence produces the overarching theme of estranged maternity, which resonated with me as a woman of the black diaspora.
Severed familial bonds is an often under discussed side effect of colonialism. Of these severed relations, the maternal bond is perhaps the most damaged. Belle brilliantly depicts this dynamic through the mixed race protagonist’s separation from her mother by death, and reunion with her white father in her mother’s permanent absence. Despite the movie’s portrayal of this dynamic as Dido’s personal experience, Dido’s relationship reflects the African in America’s conflict with their origins.
Stolen from the womb of Africa, the African-American is born into an estranged relationship with their maternal continent. In this estranged relationship, the African in America is coerced into the arms of a western world, who acts as a father to the child of a raped mother.
Belle depicts the eventual severing of both familial ties, as the protagonist eventually looses her father as well. Belle’s loss and disconnect with her parents demonstrates the foot an African-American has in both Africa and America- but the failure to truly find themselves in either.
A Bad Romance
Romance, of course soothes this conflict of identity, but while the strive to lessen the blow is understandable, it is also undermining. So although romance is an ideal way to engage the audience in history, is the comfort of romance worth the compromise of truth?
For it isn’t Dido that is being swept off her feet, it’s the viewers. Viewers are seduced by romance that distorts the facts of yet another testament to the conflict of being black and female.
This transformation of a tragic mulatto story to a timeless romance, adds to the collective amnesia needed to further the distance of those within the African diaspora from their roots.