Friday, May 16, 2014


seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

It's those dresses. They're... distracting. Whenever I watch a period piece set in the 19th century or earlier, I just can't help but be distracted by them. Yes, I realize that it's the corsets underneath them that create all that generous cleavage, and yes, they're probably uncomfortable as hell, but... usually, they're the only thing that keeps me awake whenever I watch a period piece. Most of the time, all those movies about Lady Such-and-Such and her secret burning passion for Sir So-and-So as they wander around their English mansions with their butlers and maids and tea bore me to death. Though there are exceptions, of course.

I wish I could say Belle was one of them. It's unfortunate that this came out so soon after the superior 12 Years a Slave. Comparisons have no doubt been drawn, even though the two films are quite different, and while I could tell from the trailer that Belle would be much more glamorous and Hollywoodized than the Best Picture Oscar winner, I still felt obligated to give it a look at least - unless it turned out to be irredeemably bad.

It was not irredeemably bad. But even if it did not suffer from living in the long shadow of 12 Years, I still wouldn't think much of it beyond its earnest effort to shine a light on the history of the slave trade - and "earnest" is definitely the word to describe Belle. It wants you to respect and love it, whereas 12 Years couldn't give a damn what you think of it.

You can figure out the plot from the trailer: 18th century English white man fathers a biracial girl from a black slave; she's raised in a white family of prestige but is never truly one of them; falls in love with a white man and must fight for her right to party be treated equally. Plus some real world stuff. This whole movie, in fact, is based on a true story. (Everyone calls her Dido but the movie is called Belle. Did the filmmakers assume people would think of the singer instead?)

The first half is exactly what you'd expect - Belle as tragic mulatta, right down to the scene where our Halfrican heroine pulls and picks and tears at her cafe au lait-colored skin, ashamed of all the trouble it's brought her. I don't mean to sound cynical about it all, especially since this is directed by a sister, but this is all familiar territory. It's Imitation of Life and Pinky in fancy dress. Still, I suppose it is necessary to set up the other side of the story, regarding a slave ship lost at sea and whether or not the crew threw its slaves overboard as a cost-cutting measure - a case that Belle's adopted father must judge. It's a fascinating bit of history, but it's supplementary to our heroine's tale, and the outcome is never in doubt.

When I wrote about 12 Years, I said that that I was worried that Hollywood would continue to mine black history at the expense of modern black stories. I'm glad that a black woman director, Amma Asante, got the opportunity to make this, and that a young new actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, got to star in it, and I hope they both get more opportunities in the future, but seriously - it's past time for some more modern black movies. Belle pretty much does what it's supposed to do and no more, and while it's totally not fair to compare it to 12 Years, that movie will set the standard for how slave trade stories are told from now on. Belle is decent, but it's nowhere near in that league.

Had a bit of a surprise at the Kew Gardens: Actual Black People were in the audience for this movie. I know this because I heard them providing the audio commentary. (That and I saw them in the lobby afterwards.) It was at least two middle-aged women, sitting on the far side of the auditorium and several rows up from me, and every so often they felt the need to audibly react to certain dramatic moments in the movie. I was tempted to throw something at them but I wasn't sure if I'd hit them or not and I'd have hated to have targeted the wrong person.

On the one hand, I love the fact that Actual Black People came to see Belle! It's not playing at the Jamaica Multiplex, a theater in an actual black neighborhood, and I've talked before about how I think such theaters should support movies like these as well as the Tyler Perry ones. Still, I don't know if these women went out of their way to see Belle (Kew Gardens is a Jewish neighborhood). That said, is it asking so much to not live up to the stereotype for a movie like this? This is not The Queen Latifah Show, and you're not watching it in your living room.

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