It doesn’t surprise me to learn that British costume drama Belle came about after its screenwriter, Misan Sagay, spotted an 18th century portrait of a woman of colour, apparently an ensconced member of the aristocracy in an era where black skin was synonymous with slavery. The film is fundamentally good-intentioned, but strikes me as the exact sort of film a contemporary writer would imagine peering two decades into the past, imagining herself as a Mary Sue, an assertive individual above the prejudices of its time who sees slavery for its inhumanity and refuses to marry if not for love.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw; excellent) acknowledges the specialness of her position: “I have been blessed with freedom twice over, as a negro and as a woman.” Like much of the film, this dialogue is as unsubtle as the ornate costumes and opulent sets through which its characters walk. The delicacy with which most such period dramas navigate the social mores of their era are abandoned for overt explication of these bigotries. This means that as Belle hurtles towards its inevitable conclusion, its resonance with modern society – and today’s racism, classism and sexism; ubiquitous but unspoken – is limited by its obviousness.