Wings was a 1927 film about fighter pilots in World War I. Nowadays, it’s primarily known as the very first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. So in a way, making po-faced historical epics to court Academy voters is a practice quite literally as old as the Oscars themselves.
Flash forward about a century later, when Tyler Perry proved that black moviegoers will spend millions of dollars in box office grosses if properly coaxed. This has led to such disposable films as Black Nativity, Peeples, Temptation, Baggage Claim, I’m In Love with A Church Girl, The Best Man Holiday, and those were just the cash-ins released last year.
Then, a few years ago, some bastard mad scientist found out that filmmakers could pander to Oscar voters and black audiences at the exact same time.
This has given birth to a new genre, which I like to call “White Guilt Oscar-Bait.” These are period dramas — usually taking place during or before the Civil Rights Movement — that deal heavily with racial injustice. The results of this development have been mixed. For every Fruitvale Station, there’s a 42. We got Django Unchained, and we got The Help. There’s 12 Years a Slave balanced out with Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and there’s a Lincoln for every Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
In principle, I’m against the practice of churning out mediocrities in a transparent plea for Oscar gold and African-American ticket sales. But since the practice has yielded some legitimately great movies — one of which actually won Best Picture — to show that the practice can work, I expect we’ll be seeing even more hatchet jobs trying to ride some coattails in the years to come.
All of this has culminated in Belle, a “based on a true story” film about a half-black woman living among England nobility at a time before slavery in England was outlawed. Also, Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson play leading roles. If this film had been produced by the Weinstein Brothers, it would be the perfect picture of transparent Oscar baiting at this exact moment in time. Still, the movie does have a Tomatometer north of 80 percent, so let’s see what we’ve got.
The title refers to Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, here played as an adult by newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She’s the illegitimate daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay, played in one scene by Matthew Goode. Lindsay is set to go sailing with the Navy to die off-camera, but not before ensuring that his daughter is cared for. Young Dido is handed off to Lindsay’s uncle, William Murray the first Earl of Mansfield, played by Tom Wilkinson. Murray and his wife (played by Emily Watson) are understandably shocked at Dido’s arrival, given the social customs of the time. Yet they are bound by blood to take her in, and they’re caring for another niece (Elizabeth, played as an adult by Sarah Gadon) who needs a playmate.
Here we have an admittedly good premise. Though we’ve had movies in recent memory that deal with the issues of slave rape and interracial sex before civil rights, I don’t remember a movie that deals with the implications of illegitimate children borne of such unions. Children who are half white and half black, half noble and half slave, below respectable society yet above the indentured servants. It’s a fascinating, heartbreaking place to be in a time when social standing is everything.
What makes things even more complicated is that when Lindsay inevitably dies, he leaves his fortune to Dido. She’s now both wealthy and noble-born, but that can still only get her so far without white skin. Compare that to sister-cousin Elizabeth, a white girl destined to become penniless the way the inheritance scheme is laid out (it’s a long story). So basically, both women are entirely helpless unless they get married. The way society works in the 1780s, it’s like all women are treated as property regardless of their skin color. And that’s not me saying that, that’s pretty much exactly how the film puts it.
In theory, this makes for some potentially interesting story material. In practice, it falls completely flat.
To start with, the film is a romance at its core. So much of this story depends on whether Elizabeth and Dido will find worthy husbands. The problem, of course, is that old English romance is cold and sterile by design, completely void of passion. This might be a solvable problem if the characters were well-written, entertaining to watch, or had any degree of chemistry — that’s what made “Jane Eyre” and “Pride & Prejudice” such enduring classics. Here, no such luck. Elizabeth is dating a transparent racist scumbag played by Tom “Don’t call me Malfoy” Felton, so we already know exactly how it’s going to end up. Which means that this storyline would be boring even if these characters had any degree of chemistry, which they don’t.
Dido has an even bigger problem. She’s being courted by the brother of Felton’s character (Oliver Ashford, played by John Norton), but she’s also in a love/hate relationship with a vicar’s son who aspires to be a lawmaker (John Davinier, played by Sam Reid). So here we’ve got two decent men who believe that negroes are people too, and both of them want to be with Dido even though she has no credible spark with either of them. Yet one of them is a rich titled gentleman who actually puts effort into courting Dido, while the other is a poor man who pussyfoots around his attraction while spouting diatribes about racial equality. Clearly, the film will need some contrived reason for Dido to dump Oliver and marry John and why should anyone care?
To be fair, a lot of the romance material in this film is concerned with inheritance, class, social standing and blah blah blah. The continuing success of “Downton Abbey” shows that some people must be entertained by such proceedings, but I’m sorry, I’m not one of them.
Moving on, Dido very seldom has to deal with the issues of her color because she was raised in comfort by a family of privilege. And that sheltered life is enforced throughout the movie. She’s so heavily insulated by such a protective adoptive family that she’s spared the harsh treatment common to most black people of the time. This might have been the basis for an overwhelming racial guilt trip on the part of our protagonist, but it only serves to water down this film’s messages about race. This movie fails where 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station succeeded because it treats the matter of racial injustice with kid gloves. Though in hindsight, I feel kind of stupid for expecting a PG movie to deal with such a nasty topic in any kind of deep, bold, or intelligent way.
So if the movie only deals with Dido’s ethnicity in the most superficial way possible, what’s the main racial focus of the movie? Well, in the waning months of 1781, the slave ship Zong threw its entire complement of human cargo overboard. Allegedly, there wasn’t enough drinking water available to sustain everyone on board. So the crew of the Zong demanded compensation from the company that insured the slaves, and the insurance companies (being insurance companies) denied the claim. The case went to court and rulings were appealed until it went to the Lord Chief Justice. That would be Murray, Tom Wilkinson’s character. Which means that Murray’s pending decision on this trial is the primary through-line for the movie’s narrative.
First of all, the Zong massacre takes place entirely offscreen, and all the legal proceedings are more or less over by the time the film starts. This begs the question of why we’re not watching a movie about this potentially far more interesting subject. Second and far more importantly, there’s nothing left to do in this case except debate, and the debate in this movie is overwhelmingly one-sided. We only ever hear (usually by way of Davinier) that people are not property to be bought, sold, and insured. This was a revolutionary idea at the time, sure, but it’s horribly dull to keep hearing things that we in the 21st century know full well. It baffles me how a movie could keep professing “slavery is wrong” and still think of itself as creative and intelligent.
What makes the whole thing even dumber is that there’s no counter-argument. Absolutely no attempt is made to understand why the insurance companies shouldn’t pay or why we used to accept this as the way things were. All we ever get is Murray talking about upholding the law, yet he’s clearly a rational person trying to maintain his neutrality. Between that and the overwhelming evidence presented against the Zong traders, there is never the least bit of tension or doubt as to which way his decision will go. Pathetic.
Regarding the cast, Emily Watson visibly struggles to bring some dignity to an otherwise unmemorable role, and Wilkinson musters all of his talent in bringing dimension to such a flat and predictable character. He certainly plays a loving father well enough, I’ll grant him that. Sarah Gadon isn’t enough to elevate her character, but Mbatha-Raw can do wonders when the script and direction give her half a chance. The love interests are played with a complete dearth of charisma, and Felton seems visibly angry to still be playing a stuck-up turd all this time after Harry Potter. And speaking of Harry Potter alumni, Miranda Richardson appears as Felton’s mother. She’s yet another worthless and annoying cardboard bigot.
Visually, the film is way too fond of close-ups for its own good. The score is basically white noise, perfectly resembling what you’d expect this film to sound like. The costumes and sets are pretty, but it’s nothing I haven’t already seen in so many other, better costume dramas. In fact, that’s a pretty apt description for the film as a whole.
Belle wastes a perfectly good premise and cast on rote delivery. The concept of a mulatto protagonist is good, the story of the Zong massacre is potentially very intriguing, and there are admittedly some good moments between the two sisters. Yet those few good aspects are ruined with botched romance storylines, a plot that glides perfectly on predictable rails, and a purely superficial examination of race and class in a less enlightened time. Seriously, if filmmakers are going to take on this subject without even trying to challenge the audience, I don’t know why they’d bother.
Fans of old English drama might find something here to like, but I have a hard time recommending it when there are so many better “White Guilt Oscar-Bait” movies to choose from.