How The Movie Belle Parallels Black Women Today

Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle with her cousin Elizabeth depicts them at equal stations (attributed to Johan Zofanny).


I had the pleasure of seeing the movie Belle based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle an “illegitimate” biracial child born to the aristocratic Lindsay family. Her father, Admiral Sir John Lindsay, brought her to his uncle’s house to be raised as her birth right permitted. Her story is absolutely fascinating. She was a free woman born to a family of status yet she was not permitted to dine with her family in the presence of guests. When her cousin began her search for a suitable match (husband) Dido, as she is called in the movie, was left out of the process. In part this was due to the security granted to her by her father. The other part of it was as a Black woman she was not suitable for the White gentlemen from other prominent families. She was just as educated, beautiful, and accomplished as her cousin but still considered not good enough by society’s standards because of the color of her skin.

Her story is told against the backdrop of the pivotal and controversial real-life Zong massacre. The slave ship operators killed about 142 slaves claiming that it ran low on potable water and it was necessary to ensure the survival of the crew. The slaves, considered property and cargo, were claimed as a loss to the insurance company. The insurance company refused to pay sighting fraud. Dido finds herself torn between her family rights and her human rights in the wake of a court decision her uncle must render as Lord Chief Justice, the equivalent of our Supreme Court.

The movie itself boasts flawless performances by the entire cast complimented by the breathtaking cinematography and captivating dialogue. Amma Asante has created a masterpiece that deserved to be in far more markets in the US. Finally a period piece that tells the true story of a woman considered to be Black who was not a slave. I don’t recall any historical pieces from this time period that shows a Black woman in the lead as an aristocrat. At best, we have movies where a Black woman is a very beloved servant but still the help. As I watched the movie the question dawned on me, what has really changed? While slavery has been abolished and we’re of course all free under the law, what has changed in the circumstance for Black women.

While Black women are among the most educated, beautiful and accomplished in this country, they, we, are still not considered good enough based on the society’s standards because of the color of our skin. Belle’s story may have happened over 200 years ago but the story line from then to now is the same. 9.7% of Black women are enrolled in a college or graduate school program, far above the national average. Black women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. The climb up the corporate ladder is incredibly slow but we now hold 2% of board seats for Fortune 500 companies. Today our freedom is granted under the Constitution of the United States of America and the family you’re born into is no longer an issue in terms of building wealth and getting married. Yet, Black women have the least amount of wealth, the worst health and are the least likely to get married.

Was Belle the angry Black woman of her age? Was her fight for her rights, freedom and her life considered to be a nuisance? We watch the movie now and look back on slavery as a deplorable scar on the face of humanity. Patrons watch the beautiful imagery of the movie and think to themselves what a brave woman she was, a fighter. But in her time she was the equivalent of today’s angry Black woman. Will it be 200 years before today’s “angry Black woman” is considered a pioneer, brave and a heroine? Will patrons be sitting in a movie theater 100 years from now and think what a shame that Black women were paid $0.64 for every $1 a White male earns thank goodness they fought for their rights? And if so, will things really be different? Here we are over 200 years later but the theme is the same. We are welcome to live in the house but when guests arrive we are relegated to eat alone in the parlor.

Dido asked her Uncle how is it she is too high to dine with the servants but too low to dine with her family. I pose the question how is it we are as as educated, as accomplished but not good enough to be promoted, to be paid a comparable wage, to be married, to receive excellent health care. Angry Black woman syndrome can’t be the answer for all of this. How does that explain the fact that Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer than White women? Does this explain the study results that show Black women are more harshly judged for failures?

This question is not answerable in this post, frankly I don’t know the answer. As I watched Belle I saw me in her and her in me. My questions are the same as hers. My thoughts and feelings are the same as hers. Had there been computers then I like to think she would have started a blog focused on uplifting and empowering Black women and abolishing slavery. Society still judges us by the same means…media. The media then was word-of-mouth and newspapers, now it’s TV, movies, internet, etc. I would argue then it was a conscious and deliberate bias and now it’s more subconscious with a side of deliberate. The stereotypes of Black women have become our reality while the stereotypes of others remain just that. Simply looking past surface and getting to know a person is always the way to combat beliefs and stereotypes, yet I”m surprised at how rarely that happens outside of my own race.

I don’t speak for all Black women when I say what I want. I want to be considered fairly and equally. I want the same opportunities to win and fail. I want a world where I don’t need special groups and programs to ensure I’m considered fairly; a world where I am just beautiful not “beautiful for a Black woman (yes a White male co-worker said that to me in all seriousness). I also want world peace and an end to hunger. My wishlist is not an easy one to deliver. It takes bravery on the parts of everyone. It takes White and Black women reaching out;  White men to say “enough” and be sponsors and advocates recognizing that it’s not about pushing them out but pulling others up. It takes Black women joining forces with one another. There is plenty of light in the world for everyone to shine. 

I offer you no answer or solution other than to be like Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and be an example, uplift each other and press forward. Lastly, thank you Amma Asante for making this film, Fox Searchlight for putting your name to it, Misan Sagay for the beautiful writing, and the cast for outstanding performances.

Nile Harris is an expert in the area of health care and the founder of the New Black Chick website focused on building health and wealth among Black women and beyond. Her mission is to help everyone realize and live in their mandated destiny and to perpetuate positive images of Black women in the media.

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