12 years a slave, 17th & 18th century portrayals of blacks in classical european paintings, amma asante, belle, depictions of african americans in fim, film, gail o'neill, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, race, steve mcqueen, the butler, the help
Only two things kept my spirits from sinking lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon wheel track when 12 Years a Slave was named Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
The first was the sight of my girlfriend, Nadeen, literally jumping for joy before breaking into a happy dance that outlasted (12 Years director) Steve McQueen’s rambling acceptance speech. The second was the realization that friends and family across the country– whose judgement, taste and intelligence I really respect– would be as thrilled as Nadeen with what they regarded as a victory.
But after a rash of films in which African-Americans starred as maids, butlers, slaves and general-purpose receptacles for other people’s trash had swept box offices and the imaginations of movie-goers one year too many, I’d had enough of the entire genre and was not feeling the love.
I don’t mean to imply that there’s no dignity in a life of service or the telling of all stories. As the direct beneficiary of two grandmothers who worked as domestics after migrating to the States from Jamaica, I am well acquainted with the fortitude, strength of character and nobility required of anyone who would willingly accept a dead-end job to ensure limitless possibilities for their progeny. Such selflessness only heightens my respect and admiration for my grandmothers. But it also bears noting that neither woman was shaped by her sacrifices. In fact, their examples taught me that forfeiture of agency in ones personal life did not have to go hand in hand with being deemed a second-class citizen due to race, class, immigrant and/or socio-economic status.
To the contrary, my grandmothers were steel magnolias to all who knew and loved them. They were matriarchs who commanded respect in their homes and communities. Their lives did not revolve around those of the people they served Monday through Friday. Nor were their off-duty hours wasted by rehashing or recuperating from whatever pettiness befell them in their places of employment. They were neither defined, nor confined by their job descriptions. Instead, they had interior lives. They gave as good as they got. They counselled their grown children, and over-indulged their grandchildren. They fulfilled promises and fell short. They might go to church on Sunday, then gossip on Monday. Depending on the day of the week, their mood or who was watching, they could be sinner or saint– just like you and me. And just like you and me, it’s impossible to imagine a prevailing circumstance which might have precluded their humanity.
I’d hoped to get glimpses of women like my grandmothers and their predecessors when movies like The Help, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave were released. I was eager to bear witness to their stories in time-appropriate contexts. I wanted to see them in all of their glorious and maddening complexity. But all I got were slap-dash, broad stroke reenactments which rendered the protagonists either all-good or all-evil. Whatever their motivation, the writers and directors of these films seemed hell-bent on serving up a smörgåsbord of smackdowns: Hollywood’s version, I suppose, of what it means to be black in America. Nuanced plot lines, layered narratives and the kind of character development which allow for the suspension of disbelief were the first casualties– making the likelihood of nodding, or smiling or weeping in recognition of what I know to be universal truths when viewing a movie (or any work of fine art) an impossibility.
In this parallel universe, service was tantamount to servitude, cynicism trumped sincerity and the story lines veered from simplistic to sensational. But absent subtlety, depth, color or warmth a film cannot resonate on any significant level. At best, they will look like hyper-realized versions of real life. At worst, they’ll make the audience painfully aware that we are watching a movie, as opposed to being engrossed in a great story.
The affront of slipshod storytelling aside– which does more to dishonor the legacies of women like my grandmothers than not– the most alarming aspect of this cottage industry has been America’s apparently insatiable appetite for the most mono-dimensional portrayals of people who look like me, in spite of being completely unrecognizable to me. Characters who are first and foremost victims: satellites orbiting someone else’s planet, helpless, hopeless, pathetic, impoverished, emasculated, infantilized and, though worthy of our pity, seldom worthy of our respect as equals.
And then came Belle.
Director Amma Asante’s film is based on a real life character named Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804); the child of an enslaved African woman and a British naval officer. After her mother’s death, Belle was placed in the care of her great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who raised her as a gentlewoman at Kenwood House, just outside of London. Murray and his wife had no children of their own, and were raising another niece, Elizabeth Murray, by the time Belle became part of the household. There, the girls– who were very close in age– were raised as sisters and immortalized in a portrait that hung in their childhood home from 1779 until 1922; when it was moved to Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland.
The painting of Belle and Elizabeth is attributed to German neoclassical painter Johann Zoffany and considered groundbreaking not only for the vivacity in Belle’s facial expression and body language, but because her eye line falls on a parallel plane with that of her cousin– an 18th century English aristocrat– a practice that was unheard of at the time given the girls’ respective ethnicities.
In Belle, we have a heroine who is as quick-witted as she is sharp-tongued. A coquette as well-read, refined and cultured as she is thoughtful, sensitive and sure-footed. A bona fide beauty, swaddled in silk brocades, with an ever-present strand of pearls circling her delicate neck and fastened with a silk bow. A young woman whose mastery of the King’s English is as pitch perfect as her rendering of a piano solo by Mozart or Bach. Yet none of these assets are enough to protect Belle from the assault that awaits anyone unlucky enough to have been born out-of-wedlock, black and female in her time and place.
By the same token, Belle is not defined by her vulnerability, and it certainly doesn’t discourage her from perpetrating the sins of her (English) forefathers upon those of lower birth who live and work at Kenwood House. Belle’s casual disregard of (if not outright hostility toward) a lady’s maid in the family’s employ, who is also a woman of color, show how a victim can victimize others. And when Belle chooses a suitor, she does so with a flinty-eyed awareness that choices based upon love, money or position in society will result in starkly different outcomes for herself and any children she might bear.
Like Belle, every character in the film is a study in shadow and light. The contradictions help breathe life into the players– giving them depth, making them believable and allowing viewers to empathize with them whether they are guided by their higher or lower natures.
Belle’s Uncle William, for example, says he loves his great-niece “as if she were born to me,” but even his profound affection for the child fails to inform his moral convictions where bucking societal conventions are concerned. From not permitting Belle to dine with her family whenever the Murrays entertain guests, to his equivocation on the slave trade– Uncle William is neither satanic nor paragon of virtue. He’s just a man doing the best he can with the cards he’s been dealt. Lady Mary Murray, Belle’s spinster aunt, has the gruff exterior and short-temper of a harridan, but her sharp edges are precisely what make the occasional flashes of gentleness and compassion so significant when coming from her. And though Aunt Mary’s words can slice-and-dice her young charges one moment, Penelope Wilton’s ability to convey maternal pride in the next, with the slightest arch of an eyebrow or almost imperceptible twitch at the corner of her mouth, is downright breathtaking to behold. (Getting to watch Wilton in another period piece and out from under the considerable shadow cast by her Downton Abbey co-star Maggie Smith was an absolute delight! Moreover, Wilton proves herself an equal master of the kinds of zingers, one-liners and cutting remarks that have made the Dowager Countess Grantham such an iconic character on Masterpiece Theatre.) Even Belle’s most staunch ally, her beloved cousin Elizabeth, is not above sinking to conventional thinking when caught in a pique of rage that is spurred by her frustration over being a woman in a man’s world.
My initial attraction to Belle was purely superficial. I am a sucker for period films with their elegant interiors; baroque costumes; requisite unrequited love stories and strict protocols surrounding language, manners and comportment. And I knew that getting to watch a woman of color at the center of it all would be as much icing on the cake, as a revelation, to me. So much so, that my first thought upon seeing the ethereal beauty of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays the title character, in a trailer for Belle was “What light through yonder window breaks?” Not only for the actress’s obvious intelligence, innate grace and haute couture, but for what was missing from the picture. Because gone were the mainstays of too many films featuring African-American casts which foretell the “authentic ethnic experience” about to ensue: elements like self-loathing, misogyny, improper English, slang, over-the-top gestures, histrionics, aprons, raggedy clothes, head scarves, mournful soundtracks, pathology, backbreaking labor, sweat, hot stoves, cotton fields and unanswered prayers. These aural, visual and psychic cues are no more accurate today than they were 235 years ago, and only serve to keep all parties in the dark.
Yet for all of Belle’s beauty, the film’s value is far from skin deep.
When a filmmaker loves her characters enough to show them as they are, for better or worse; trusts that her audience does not wish to be spoon-fed a singular narrative so that we can all reach identical conclusions by the close of a film; and manages to upend stereotypes and tropes– without lecturing or pontificating, this is my idea of true cinematic victory. And while I hope that Asante’s effort will at least challenge other directors to think before releasing the next paint-by-numbers portrait of people of color on film– even if it never happens again, I will be grateful to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Belle will be released in the US on May 2, 2014.