Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Belle, racism, Quakers, Austen

In Amma Asante's movie Belle, as in history, Dido Elizabeth Belle is the mixed-race daughter of a white English admiral. A relative, Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of Britain, raises Dido as a lady, and almost, but not quite, an equal to whites. (Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship, the book documenting that ambivalent relationship of white abolitionist Quakers in America to blacks comes to mind as one watches the film.) I find Belle an important movie.

A portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray,
portrayed in the movie as Dido's cousin, inspired Asante to make the film.
The portrait depicts both Dido and Elizabeth dressed in silks and jewelry,
posed as equals, unlike most depictions of blacks gazing adoringly at whites.

On a discussion list I participate in, WomenWritersthroughtheAges, one person commented that she found the film a whitewash: it presents an individual act of compassion toward a black person in a way that shows whites off well and glosses over the systemic horror of slavery.  At times, I too felt I was peering through the looking glass into a Wonderland that never existed, a place too good, the  "picture of perfection" that Jane Austen said in a letter to her niece, "make[s] me sick and wicked." 

Dido with Lord Mansfield at his almost impossibly beautiful English estate.

And yet the movie doesn't exonerate whites on the issue of slavery, for central to the story is the horrific reality of the Zong, a slave ship that carried too many Africans with too little crew. Realizing that much of the "cargo" was diseased and might die or be unsaleable, the ship's captain had the blacks chained together and thrown into the ocean to drown. That way the stakeholders could collect the insurance money, which would be unavailable should the Africans die or be too sick to sell after landing.

This illustrates the Zong, though here the captives are not chained together. The movie never depicts the massacre.

The insurance company, however, refuses to pay, asserting the ship's crew had no business throwing out a valuable cargo to collect the insurance. The ship owners counter that drinking water had been in short supply and the crew had to jettison the Africans to save themselves. A lower court decides in favor of the ship owners and the insurance company appeals, leading the case to land in the hands of Lord Mansfield, Dido's guardian.

Thus, an immoral act, perpetrated in pursuit of profit, supported as legal by the lower courts, becomes central to the movie. The uncertainty about whether or not justice will triumph over a legal system weighted to protect property rights emerges as the core conflict of the film. As soon as the legal case enters, it becomes difficult to retreat from the horror of systemic injustice into the rarified world of the English upper class, for the horror is at the core of what supports the wealthy and leisured. 

The film highlights systemic racial injustice, for it never suggests this mass murder is a rogue incident, as was the case, say, presented about the Abu Ghraib torture: Belle emphasizes that the drowning incident emerges from a larger system of injustice. Further, the drowning incident ties racism explicitly to the profit motive. Never does the movie leave us in any doubt that pursuit of money motivates the unspeakable cruelty that occurs. And going even further, the movie explicitly states that not only is  pursuit of profit a goal of the ship owners, as well as the insurance company, but the nation as a whole. We do not witness a case about a greedy shipowner versus a greedy insurance company, but glimpse a narrative about the basis of Britain's wealth. The movie makes explicit that many found it justifiable to ruthlessly drown hundreds of innocent people to support Britannia's comfort and prosperity. Thus, the movie ties racist ideology to a pursuit of profit that knows no humane bounds. We have racism, the movie says,  because it is profitable. This is important to note, because we often are led to believe that racism is either inherent or something that fell out of the sky. It bears repeating that money is behind racism.

Belle and Elizabeth lead a beautiful life supported by the slave trade.

Quakers are actually mentioned once in the movie. During the court scene in which Lord Mansfield decides the Zong case, someone worries that Quakers will "infiltrate" the courtroom. While that was unlikely, the 1783 case was important to Quaker history for it finally inspired London Yearly Meeting to formally oppose the slave trade. The meeting presented an anti-slave trade petition signed by 273 Friends to Parliament that year. One wonders what took the British Quakers so long, but as Howard D. Weinbrot outlines in his book Literature, Religion and the Evolution of Culture, the English in the eighteenth century feared the Quakers, along with other Dissenters, Jews and Catholics as the kind of "infiltraters" the movie alludes to, ready to subvert the British order and substitute an alien social system. One can imagine the Quakers spending much of the eighteenth century trying to convince the general population that they were not plotting the next revolution, and only near the end of the century--at least, before the French Revolution--being ready to jump into the abolition cause.

American Quaker Benezet travelled to England to campaign against the slave trade. 

Getting back to Belle, the domestic drama mirrors the national drama. On the domestic scene,  as on the mercantile, money is what counts, and the movie likens the marriage market to the slave market.

Belle has a large inheritance: despite being black, she gets a marriage offer from the second son of a landed, aristocratic family almost immediately upon coming out. In contrast, the white, and not just white, but fair skinned, blond, blue-eyed Elizabeth is rejected by the older son of the same family when it becomes clear she has no dowry. As soon as money comes into the picture, comically, the mother of the landed family immediately becomes not a racist. 

However, race speaks too: clearly, the family Belle proposes to marry into will treat her as second class. Like the slave traders, the landed family is out to strip Dido of her wealth and the movie strongly suggests that the older son will brutally rape her as soon as the opportunity arises.  Money, whether through the marriage market or the slave trade, draws darker and lighter skinned people together, and yet, as long as exploitation is the white person's motivator, blacks will get the worst of it. The domestic drama works tightly to underscore the national story. Only as Belle meets someone, who like her, wants something other than money can a better domestic future be imagined for Belle. Systemically, only as Lord Mansfield, albeit for ostensibly non-idealistic and narrow reasons, sides with the insurers (though the movie strongly implies he is influenced by moral concerns) do we get cracks in a system of legal injustice.

The movie strongly suggests that the older brother of Dido's fiance will brutally rape her, given the chance. The older brother is the shorter figure on the left. The fiance,  on the right, will marry her for her money.

The movie has been likened to a Jane Austen novel, and we can see the parallels, especially to Mansfield Park, in a young girl adopted into a wealthy family as a not quite equal. We can see too the concern for money, especially on the marriage market, as reminiscent of Austen. More importantly, Belle suggests Austen in all the ways minute domestic injustices can be read  as stand ins for larger social injustices. This movie be viewed as a feel good costume drama. It can be understood as a comforting, familiar narrative, in which whites, good and compassionate and moral, overturn the evils of racism on both systemic and personal levels. Or it can be read as troubling drama in which the profit motive is, both in the marriage market and the larger markets in which capital flows globally, the root of human misery. 

This profit motive still reigns supreme in the world today and continues to lead to ideologies that distort human relationships and community in truly grotesque ways. As with Austen's novels, Belle can be understood as much more subversive than its placid surface suggests. Unlike in Austen, however, Belle does explicitly (rather than implicitly) have a horror story at its heart.

As I watched the movie, I was reminded of the Gothic, for what could be more of a horror story than mass drowning the blacks, and I wondered to what extent eighteenth century Gothic expressed unspoken unease about the black Other. 

I was reminded too of Amazing Grace, the movie about Wilberforce, and of Spielberg's Lincoln. Lincoln and Belle seemed similar in depicting a dramatic moment in black emancipation within the context of a domestic drama, including the influence of blacks in the domestic environment. (If, as both movies posit, it takes a direct relationship with a person from an oppressed class for dominant class people to be influenced to do right thing (a premise I don't necessarily agree with) then let's bring on desegregation.) 

 I found the idealism and emotional intensity of Dido and Davanier compelling. Davanier is a young, poor law student who falls in love with Dido. Davanier is not a Quaker--in fact, he looks like an American minuteman in his blue coats with rows of brass buttons and unpowdered ponytail, but in his simplicity he suggests a Quaker-like alternative to the grander and more lavish upperclass life supported on human misery. His presence speaks to the importance of the simplicity testimony.

Davanier, who cares about people more than money, provides an alternative vision of what life can be.

I take away from this movie the need for an understanding of the context that supports unjust ideologies and the need to fight to change systems that perpetrate cruelty, no matter what the logic (and there always is a seemingly immutable logic) that justifies them. I also support the need for individual action. We need both: saving Dido from slavery was an important act of compassion, though no replacement for abolishing the slave system. Often, I hear that "personal" charity should replace systems of charity or conversely, hear that personal acts have no value; however, the answer is not either/or but both/and.

A question, however, arises. The movie is very Austenian in putting everything on a knife point. While the horrific drowning of the Africans lies at the center of the movie, we never see it enacted--we don't witness the chained slaves thrown overboard. The movie stays in England. The horror is thus both central and yet cerebral. The question becomes: does the movie make its point about the connection between greed/profit and horrific cruelty better by not showing us the image--would we tend to isolate the image from the larger context?--or would showing the image reinforce the movie's point?  


Diane said...

See my friend Ellen Moody's blog for another take on the film:

Diane said...

In the movie, Dido grows up as a companion to Lady Elizabeth Murray, though when guests come, Dido cannot eat with the family. Dido is aware of her color and the stigma attached to it.