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May 9, 2014

Amma Asante’s period romantic melodrama Belle is, like its leading actress, very pretty. But let’s be honest: that’s pretty much par for the course with period pictures. Without a good story, pretty can only go so far, and the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle is pretty scant.

Writer Misan Sagay seems to have jumped off from Margaret Busby’s An African Cargo in conjoining her story with that of the Zong massacre and the subsequent legal case. And this is actually a pretty great idea, to take a landmark British civil rights case and personalize it through the great-niece of the presiding magistrate. But to then take that story and reduce it to a mushy romance shot through with red-meat monologues for the “good guys” to deliver to straw-man “bad guys” makes a mockery of history.

But yes, Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the illegitimate child of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode, for all of five minutes), whom he left in the care of his uncle, the First Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), his aunt (Emily Watson). She was raised by a spinster governess (Penelope Wilton) along with another great-niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), whose father had moved on to a new family. And yes, Lord Mansfield did preside over the ultimate disposition of the legal cases stemming from the Zong massacre.

The details of the Zong case don’t seem to be common knowledge among former British schoolchildren, and they certainly aren’t on this side of the pond. So, to catch up: the Zong was a slave ship that dumped some of its cargo on the way from São Tomé to Jamaica, where by “dumped some of its cargo” they mean “threw almost a hundred human beings overboard in chains to drown”. They claimed that they were low on fresh water, it was a necessary action, and made a claim on their insurance.

Dido Belle did eventually marry a man named John Davinier (Sam Reid), but he was really a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman’s steward, and he came along much later, after Lord Mansfield died. In the movie, he’s a vicar’s son and an aspiring lawyer who studies under Lord Mansfield and tries to convince him to rule against the Zong on the basis that you cannot insure human beings as cargo.

I’m not exactly going out on a limb getting upset at the injustice here, and that’s exactly what the character is here for: to deliver an impassioned argument for us all to cheer along with and feel good about. And he’s set up in opposition to the Ashford brothers, Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton, playing the exact same sniveling creep as always), who are just here for us to boo and hiss at while they sneer at Dido and angle for fortune and position.

It’s no surprise, and certainly not a spoiler, that Lord Mansfield does eventually rule against the Zong, just like the audience wants. But the film is profoundly deceptive about how exactly it happened. Lord Mansfield’s opinion is delivered in three parts, the third of which explicitly excoriates slavery as an institution (cheers!), but this part was lifted from a different case entirely.

The actual Zong opinion wasn’t the giant civil rights success it’s presented as; it’s more like Britain’s version of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Yes, Lord Mansfield did rule that the insurance company did not have to pay out on the Zong claim, but he specifically did not rule that way on the basis that human beings cannot be considered mere cargo. As the first part of his opinion — accurately quoted in the film — states, if the situation had been as the Zong claimed then the insurer would have had to pay, just as if the slaves had been horses or tea.

The only reason the Zong lost was not that slavery is an abomination, but that they lied: they actually had plenty of opportunity to collect fresh water. The slaves were murdered because they were worth more as an insurance claim for £30 a head than at open market in Jamaica. Lord Mansfield struck no blow for freedom that day; he treated the case as insurance fraud, not civil rights.

But this is an ugly fact. Stage plays can deal honestly with morality and stare ugly facts in the eye, but we aren’t interested in that sort of thing in our period romances. Having to face the truth about our history would be too great an ugliness to ask such a very pretty movie to bear.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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