“Belle”: Race and Gender in 18th Century England and Everywhere Today

This week the 87th Academy Awards were celebrated, though, I am beginning a new series with this post assuming that some artists and performers left the ceremony feeling less than celebrated. So I offer to the conversation a celebration of some films from this year that you should see and probably didn’t. This is my celebration of films that were important, complex, emotional, and told the story of our current world through their unique narratives. They also, all happen to be directed by black artists (black female directors in two of the films) and starred black performers. I refuse to categorize them as “black cinema” because their perspective and talent should be seen as a part of and representative of the entire art of cinema. If you make it to the end of this article you will also find a challenge and a gesture that I pray will show even more how much I believe in these films as influential entries into the art I am so passionate about.

Belle

Up first in this series, is “Belle,” a period piece based on the true story of Dido, a mixed race daughter of an 18th century British Royal Navy captain, who is raised by her aristocratic grandparents in the tensions of race, family, status, and tradition. As Dr. Chistena Cleveland, a social psychologist, author, speaker, and professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN, recently said in a panel discussion on racial reconciliation, “If you have grown up in an oppressed group then the image of God in you has been dishonored. There is no group where this is more accurate than black women.” I normally watch a period piece and scoff at how ridiculous and uncomfortable the outfits and customs are. With “Belle,” what is most uncomfortable may be that, even though Dido has escaped an impoverished life lacking all privilege because of her race, she cannot escape the dishonoring of her image of God due to her gender.

I would love to watch this movie from a place where the short-sighted, ignorant social status Dido finds herself in would be laughably ridiculous. Rather, we watch this movie through the quotes and experiences of millennial, black women still fighting against the lie that their position as God’s image-bearers are somehow less than that of their male peers. There is a striking conversation in the film between Dido and her white cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, where Elizabeth is faced with the potential of a hopeless life because she has no inheritance and may not marry into money.

“Aren’t you quietly relieved that you shan’t be at the caprice of some silly sir and his fortune? The rest of us haven’t a choice. Not a chance of inheritance if we have brothers, and forbidden from any activity that allows us to support ourselves. We are but their property.”

Read that quote again. This is the heartbreaking lie. So much of “Belle” revolves around the value of a person and should raise questions for how we look at any of the people in our lives. Do you see your peers as image-bearers? Because Dido and Elizabeth and my wife and my mom and my sister and my female colleagues and the female college students I interact with every day are reflections of their own significant part of the image of God they deserve to live a life of value that is not based on the achievements of men. They deserve relationships that are based on a God-honoring love, love that is not measured by how much they offer up. Their worth is not counted in sexual favors but their position in the eyes of our generous Creator, which is an extravagant and significant sum.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw Sarah Gadon

My prayer is that this was enough to raise questions for you, to inspire a curiosity to visit this film. I want you to watch this film and the others I will be celebrating in the coming weeks.  I want you to gather friends to watch it with you, to start valuable conversations, and to see the value of yourselves and the work of these artists.

Upcoming posts: “Beyond the Lights” and “Dear White People”

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