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'Belle': An Austenesque with a Racial Twist

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The name of this utterly charming movie conjures images of
the Disney cartoon feature with a brunette cartoon star singing in the
library. Dido Belle, however, was a real life mixed race woman, smart
enough to have had a career in the law, but for 18th century England,
she went far. The talented Amma Asante's movie is an Austenesque
comedy of manners, keenly involved with who shall marry whom, and
whose fortune is more plump than so and so's social standing, but
here's the delicious twist: Belle is desirably financially endowed,
but as a mulatto, and illegitimate, she is of dubious position.
Thoughtful and daring, she influences an important decision, changing
the course of British history.

Born in a slum to a black woman and a high-born white navy captain
(Matthew Goode), Belle's fate takes a turn when her father takes
charge of her, and brings her to his family's stately mansion. There,
surrogate parents, Lord and Lady Mansfield (excellent Tom Wilkinson
and a witty Emily Watson), manage Belle's education and upbringing.
Her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) is a constant playmate.
Belle's father disappears early on, and in many ways this romance
becomes a father-daughter piece, with Wilkinson beaming proud of his
ward as Belle shows intelligence, not only in helping to adjudicate a
famous legal case involving the Zong slave ship vs. an insurance
company, but also insisting that when she marries, her race would not
be an issue of conciliation and embarrassment. Sam Reid plays the
suitor, a kind of Mr. Darcy.

At a recent lunch at la Grenouille, hosted by British Ambassador Mark
Lyall Grant and W Magazine's Stefano Tonchi, Phyllicia Rychard, Star
Jones, Tamron Hall, and others were introduced to director Amma Asante
and her leading actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Diners also heard historical
novelist Amanda Foreman flesh out the legalities of the Zong slave
ship matter. Foreman, originator of the popular and entertaining House
of Speakeasy nights, where writers are invited to extrapolate on a
theme, knows how to make history and literature engaging and fun. The
discussion went down with the ease of the delicious striped bass: in
the case of Belle, and the lovely actress who plays her, a refreshing
gem in the season of sequels and action hero blockbusters.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.