It is a truth universally acknowledged that the BDP (British Period Drama) genre, like most genres is mostly bereft of characters of color.
In 2013, the movie Belle finally broke the color barrier for the BPD genre.
Paula Byrne’s 2014 book, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, is not just about Belle, but the events that led her uncle, Lord Mansfield’s ruling on the Zong massacre.
I adore the movie Belle. It is much more than the standard BPD. It speaks to a modern audience about race issues, women’s issue and other human rights issues that are just as relevant today as they were in the 19th century. That is reason I read the book. The book and the movie, however are vastly different. The book reads like a college textbook and not like the entertaining movie that subtly speaks to the audience about issues that 300 years later are still being discussed.
Do I recommend it? No.
I’m a girl. I like romances and more specifically I like period romances. I like see men wearing stockings, breeches and neck clothes. I like seeing woman wearing petticoats, corsets and long dresses. But that doesn’t mean I want a mindless, predictable story with an ending that can be seen a mile away. I like an intelligent story that makes me laugh, that makes me think, all while providing the happily ever after that makes me smile at the end of the story.
I am very happy to report that Belle is such a story.
It is based on the true story Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a bi-racial woman raised on her great uncle’s estate in 1780’s England. Her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) is only able to care for his daughter for a brief time before he passes her to his uncle to raise. His uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) was Lord Chief Justice at the time, was reviewing a case in regards to a slave ship where many of the slaves were drowned.
When Dido reaches the age when marriage is expected, there are road blocks. She is attracted to the son of a local vicar, John Davinier (Sam Reid), but finds herself and her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) in the company of James Ashford (Tom Felton), his brother Oliver (James Norton) and their mother, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson). Dido’s mother figures, her aunts, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) and Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton) do their best, but they are blinded by their own prejudices.
This movie is wonderful. While it has the hallmarks of a BPD (British Period Drama), it also brings up issues that have not been raised in the genre previously. I’ve seen many BPD’s, but 99.9% of them have an all white cast, the issue of racism and people of color in England is rarely addressed. It also addresses the fact that English women, up until approximately WWI, had no rights. They were chattel. Wealthy women and aristocratic women, were especially viewed as chattel. If they were lucky, they had a father or a brother and then eventually a husband who loved them and respected them.
I highly recommend this movie.