My time at the Pan African Film Festival was, to say the least, very rewarding.
From meeting several directors (Deon Taylor, Amma Asante, Jimmie Thomas and Jermaine Fletcher) to being able to see and hear first-hand accounts from actors via Q&A sessions (Danny Glover, Gugu Mbatha-Raw), I can say that I not only enjoyed positive movie-watching experiences, but I also experienced sincere artistic and cultural fulfillment.
Although all of the films I was able to see at PAFF were fantastic, the closing night Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation of Amma Asante’s period piece Belle was by far the most memorable and dear to my heart. Considering you’re reading this, I will assume you have either already seen the film or you have an interest in seeing it. For those who fit into the latter group, I am not about the life of spoiling plots, so this is not a truly specific or detailed review or recap. It is just a heads up and a brief expression of love and adoration.
Based on true events, in short, Belle is the 18th century story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral. Unashamed of his child, the Admiral entrusts the care of his child to his aristocratic uncle, the Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield, and his wife. Although Belle’s lineage affords her many rights and privileges, the color of her skin prevents her from fully participating and flourishing in the traditions of her English social standing. Throughout the course of the film, Belle deals with love on several complex internal and external levels. She also finds herself – along with her love interest, an aspiring lawyer named John Davinier – involved in an attempt to influence paramount cases that her uncle is presiding over. Depending on his ruling, these cases would go on to greatly affect the institution of slavery in England and throughout the British Empire.
From set design to cinematography to the compelling messages conveyed through the actors’ performances and beyond, Belle is a beautiful film. It has all of the aethetic charm and elegance we as viewers expect from a period piece, but is enhanced through both the originality of its protagonist, Dido, its layers of love and its strong, compassionate historical and social commentary.
As far as the types of stories and themes that are explored within the film, there are three major ones: the romantic relationship between Dido and John Davinier, the maternal relationship between Dido and Lord Mansfield and his family – brilliantly conveyed by legendary supporting cast members Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, and most importantly, Tom Wilkinson – and perhaps most importantly, Dido’s relationship with herself. Her continuous struggle to understand and cope with her dual life as both a first and second class citizen is, in itself, a heartbreaking and relatable love story that Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays with undeniable grace and bravery.
In addition to loving the film for several reasons, what I also took away from the PAFF screening of Belle was a sense of pride and inspiration. Within the movie, Dido has many cards stacked against her, yet she repeatedly stands up for herself and thrives in a world that is set up to beat her down. For this reason, above all others, she is one of my favorite on-screen heroines. Outside of the film, director Amma Asante, as a woman and more specifically, a woman of color, has many cards stacked against her, yet she has been able to stand up and produce a well-written, well-casted, well-edited and well-shot and well-received film in an industry that is not necessarily set up to see her succeed. For this reason, above all others, she is one of my favorite off-screen heroines.
If you have yet to see the film, it was released as a digital download yesterday and will be available via DVD and Blu-Ray on August 26th. In any way you may prefer to see it, you should see it.
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– Khylen Steward, CBS Local