It's not often that audiences are exposed to a portrayal of racism that is viewed through the lens of black women. Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman in 1700s England, was the daughter of an admiral and an enslaved African woman. The film Belle, which was released nationwide this weekend, follows Dido's life in the household of William Murray, her great-uncle, who was the earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England. We watch Dido become a lady, educated and accomplished, while still forced to dine separately from her family, in the company of strangers, due to her lower status as a non-white person. We witness her experiences with romance and her complicated friendship with her white cousin, all during the infamous Zong case.
In the film, Dido becomes acquainted with an aspiring lawyer and abolitionist who advocates against the Zong slavers and, in turn, exposes Dido to the realities of slavery and racism that she had previously been sheltered from in the household of Chief Justice Mansfield. Meanwhile, as she comes of age and her cousin is introduced to society, she becomes painfully aware of what her race means outside the home of her great-uncle, becoming conscious of the unique prison she finds herself trapped within as both a non-white person and a woman. Her cousin Elizabeth is white but poor; she doesn't have the inheritance that Dido is privileged with. But the two young women discover how complicated both racism, sexism, and classism have made the world: Elizabeth can eat with her family and be introduced to society without burden, yet without an inheritance, her options for marriage are extremely limited, and the gentleman whom she would marry will not have her, as his own pockets are empty, and he requires a hefty dowry. On the other hand, Dido can afford to not marry, if she so wishes, or to marry whom she pleases, given her inheritance. Money gives her some independence, yet it seems that she will not be able to marry at all, given her status as a non-white person: "too high to dine with the servants," she says at one point, "but too low to dine with my own family."
The intricacies of marriage and money and dowries in the 1700s were complicated and seem far different from what we experience in our world today, but what I see in Belle -- juxtaposed with the ancient-seeming idea of black bodies as property, cargo that can be thrown overboard as if drowning were not drowning but a mere spoiling of goods -- is a startling sameness. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761 and died in 1804, yet the experiences that this film projects in its illustration of the past bear shocking resemblance to the challenges that black women (and black people) face in the United States today.
For one thing, there's Dido' fetishization by the two Ashford brothers. While one brother sees her simply as an exotic "other" whom he can bed without forming attachments -- very different from the attitude toward white women of the same time period, whose virtue was unequivocal and untouchable -- the other is downright violent in his conception of Dido, calling her "repulsive" but still expressing a desire to rape her. The scenes in which that older, more violent Ashford brother addresses Dido directly, giving voice to his unbridled racism and at one point assaulting her, are indisputably disturbing, not just because they represent a disgusting and brutal history but because I see remnants of those attitudes today in the way the world perceives the bodies of black and brown women: exotic, sexual, sensual, different objects. We see it in the way Miley Cyrus and almost any given white pop star (Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke, for example) use black women's bodies as props in music videos: as something to be appropriated and used for one's own pleasure and then cast off in pursuit of the next trend. In addition, the rape of black women still does not seem to carry much horror in 2014; it was most recently a punchline on Saturday Night Live, and last year Russell Simmons was forced to apologize for his highly offensive "Harriet Tubman Sex Tape." None of this is too different from the way the Ashford brothers perceive Dido's body: as an exotic "other" not worthy of love or respect but merely of lust, and lust framed in a particularly problematic racism.
The younger Ashford brother adds another layer to Dido's complicated experience as a black woman: One night, while he and Dido are sitting away from the crowd on their own, he confesses to being "taken with" her and compliments her beauty in a strange way. Her mother's blackness, he says, is undoubtedly ugly, but Dido's "better half" (that is, her white half) won out in her features, which is what makes her so beautiful.
Isn't it shocking that someone as beautiful as Dido would be struck down for her black half and regarded as beautiful only because her white features are more prominent? It's not so shocking when you consider it in the context of our beauty standards today, in which a quick Google search for "beautiful woman" returns almost entirely white faces. In American culture, the black women who do manage to be considered beautiful by mainstream societal standards are almost always mixed-race or possess white features: slim noses, light skin, straight hair. While the occasional darker-skinned woman does manage to catch the public's attention from time to time, she faces fetishization as well: Look at Lupita Nyong'o. The public's rabid consumption of her image often seems almost surprised with itself for finding a dark-skinned woman so attractive, a feeling compensated for with adoration that borders on frantic.
Belle also examines the relationship between white and non-white women. Dido's cousin Elizabeth speaks unhappily about the role of women in the world, noting that "we [women] are but their [men's] property." Her statement is almost comical: While bemoaning her own state of disadvantage as a (white) woman, she entirely ignores the disadvantage of black women, who were quite literally property. Where Dido and Elizabeth's relationship was once intimate and carefree, tension grows between them as they become more aware (in different ways) of the power dynamics between them. Elizabeth's ignorance and apathy -- as well as her own racism -- become roadblocks in their relationship, something we see often today when it comes to white feminists' denial of their (our) own privilege, and their (our) unwillingness to acknowledge intersectionality. Elizabeth is something of a feminist in her consciousness of the prison that women are forced to live within in a sexist society, but her obliviousness to the plight of black people -- and black women -- blinds her to the ways that Dido's identity impacts her life. That blindness is never actually remedied in the film (at one point Elizabeth verbally attacks Dido about her "lower status" but bites her tongue before saying something blatantly racist), nor is it always remedied in our time, as white feminists so often attack women of color on decidedly racial grounds, the while claiming not to be racist.
There is another moment in the film that parallels our times so decidedly that it took my breath away. Toward the end, when Mr. Davinier, the young abolitionist lawyer whom Dido encounters, is speaking passionately about the racist laws that made the Zong massacre possible, he says, "Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are a framework for crime."
Yes, they are, and this is our world, our country. We live in a country where:
- African Americans are 33-percent more likely than whites to be detained while awaiting felony trials.
- African Americans are frequently (illegally) excluded from criminal jury service, according to a 2010 study released by the Equal Justice Initiative. For example, in Houston County, Alabama, eight out of 10 African Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from serving on cases involving the death penalty.
- The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system, black offenders receive sentences that are 10-percent longer than those of white offenders for the same crime.
- The Sentencing Project reports that African-American drug defendants are 21-percent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than are white drug defendants, and 20-percent more like to be sentenced to prison than are white drug defendants.
- In New York, the infamous "stop and frisk" program continues to racially profile black and brown New Yorkers, even in the face of data that undermines its purpose.
- Stand Your Ground laws continue to indicate racial bias in favor of white criminals who use such laws in their defense; meanwhile, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell and so many others receive no justice.
The list goes on and on. Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761. It is now 2014, and the film about her life gives me very little comfort in the progress we have made as humans. In Belle, the courts rule against the slavers on the Zong, and Mr. Davinier rejoices, stating that the decision will reverberate throughout the world and will change the future. But the chief justice, Dido's great-uncle, tempers the young man's happiness: "History will judge whether your optimism is warranted," he says, knowing that there is much more work to be done.
He is right. There is. And one of the greatest mistakes we can make in doing that work is acknowledging the ways in which we've come so far while ignoring the ways in which we have not. Belle provides a view of an incredible life, a story not often told. We need these stories. We must keep hearing them. Mr. Davinier says at one point that a country that ignores the suffering of some and not others is "a country for whom hope is lost." Let's not be that country. Let's not be that world.