Gugu Mbatha-Raw is having a year, as they say. First came Belle, directed by Amma Asante, based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a free black woman in late-18th century England. Then came her performance in Gina Prince-Blythwood’s Beyond the Lights, a superb film that made my personal Top 10.
The two roles could not be more different. In Belle, she plays the illegitimate daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay, a white man. Her black mother has died, leaving the child alone and friendless in a terrifying world. Captain Lindsay fetches his daughter from obscurity and basically informs his parents (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) that since he is going to sea for many years, they will take in Belle (as he called her) and raise her as their own. They have already taken in another one of their nieces. They are shocked at what he requests of them: “She is black,” they say, staring at the little girl, wondering how on earth THIS is going to work. But they do as he asks, and raise Belle (or “Dido”, as they call her) as their own, with a couple of humiliating quirks (she can’t eat dinner with the family when guests are present). Belle circulates in the lofty heights of British society, raised in the same way her white cousin has been raised, and the two are like sisters.
In Beyond the Lights, Mbatha-Raw plays a world-famous pop singer, driven to success as a child by her white mother (Minnie Driver). When the film opens, she has completely lost touch with herself, who she is, who she wants to be, until she meets a security guard (Nate Parker), who reminds her of reality, of groundedness, of her own past and wishes and dreams. Beyond the Lights is completely modern, a pointed critique of the treatment of women in the music industry, as well as the pressure black women face (famous and non) to basically look like Beyonce. A culture-wide fascistic obsession with hair, body-type, demeanor, that completely hems black women in. Remember this disgusting incident? Beyond the Lights is BOLD. It goes AFTER that shit, and also manages to be a poignant gorgeous romance, a romance for grown-ups, the kind that Hollywood used to specialize in.
Belle is a period piece. Belle is sheltered by her white family, not just because her skin color would shock the neighbors, so to speak, but because young ladies of that era were held back until they made their “debut” and went husband-hunting. The family lives on a gigantic estate, the girls are schooled there, they rarely leave except for rare trips to London. Belle is a fascinating examination of the crossroads of race, economy and gender in 18th century England, but it is also a feminist critique of how helpless women were at that time, with an enforced dependence (at least in a certain class, of which Belle, an heiress, is part of).
Mbatha-Raw easily and smoothly slips into these hugely disparate (and yet, in places, dishearteningly similar) worlds. There is a beautiful quiet confidence in her approach, an empathy and depth of understanding. She has clearly done her research (for both films), and emerges fully realized in the specific context required. In Belle, there is no hint of modernism in her performance. She understands Belle’s context, she understands the world and its behavioral requirements, and how those forces will impact one’s impulses. Watch her reaction when a horrid English “gentleman” (played by Tom Felton, basically Draco Malfoy in 1789) grabs her roughly by the arm. Her reaction is not that of a modern woman who operates without the protection of a patriarchal system. (Not to look longingly back to that world, that’s not my point, but Belle takes place in a world where the safety of women – white women, that is – was built into the foundation of genteel society. Belle, despite her skin color, has absorbed those messages.) Belle literally has no place in her conception of the world to understand or process being touched like that. She has been that sheltered. You think she might actually faint. These are details, but details are often missed in sloppier or lazier performances by actresses who cannot blend into a time other than their own. (I saw a production of Oklahoma!, for example, where the actress playing Laurie seemed to think she was in Beverly Hills High School circa 2009. Her behavior was completely modern, with a kind of “Oh, bitch, no, you didn’t” feeling to her gestures. She had not cared enough about the specific context of the musical to get that that world created different modes of behavior – no less human, but different.) Mbatha-Raw has done her work, but – most importantly – you can’t see the work she has done. What we have is the end result. She’s an amazing talent.
Seeing her in the opening scenes of Beyond the Lights, writhing around on the floor in a music video, is such a huge confirmation of her vast range that you wouldn’t even know it was the same actress. But her approach has the same depth, the same complexity. She has immersed herself in her character’s world and context to such a degree that you forget she’s an actress at all.
Belle was one I missed on its original release. It’s now out on DVD. Pulsing with political urgency, awkward truths, and beautiful scene work (the film goes from good scene to good scene to good scene, an embarrassment of riches), Belle is the story of a family, a good one, a rule-breaking family, a brave family, who are finally faced with the reality of the economic system on which their wealth has been built (i.e. the slave trade). Tom Wilkinson plays Belle’s uncle, an important judge, who takes her in reluctantly at first, and then grows to love and cherish her. He raises her alongside Elizabeth, his other niece, (Sarah Gadon). The reality of the outer world is kept from the girls. It is only when they reach of age, and prospective husbands start to come calling, that things start to shift. Belle is an heiress: her father left her a significant sum of money. This puts her in a better position than Elizabeth (who, despite the wealth of the larger family, has been left penniless). It’s brutal. The courtship period is a period of assessing someone’s wealth, position, prospects. Love is low on the list of priorities. (Interestingly, there’s one scene where Emily Watson interviews a young man whom she hoped might be good for Elizabeth. But when she learns he has six older brothers – meaning he will get zero money probably – she finds a reason to walk away. The entire system was brutal, not just for women.)
The humiliations Belle face, as a black woman in that upper echelon of society, are countered by the true care and concern her aunt and uncle have for her welfare and future. They do not want her to be lowered in value by the hateful gaze of people who are prejudiced and vicious. They fear that any man who shows interest in her will be doing so either for monetary reasons OR he is titillated by her skin color and that would be a situation that would be beneath her. These people are not idiots. The various courtship scenes between Belle and a prospective mate are filled with anxiety and a sense that there may be more going on there than meets the eye. If she were white, none of this would be an issue. A match would be made, off she would go with her significant dowry, and her caretakers wouldn’t worry. But Belle’s position is completely precarious.
The film is strong enough to go after the entire political/economic system, a system based on (in part) dehumanizing another race. These political realities affect our individual lives. Affect how we feel about ourselves.
There is a harrowing moment when Belle, after a dinner party where she was shunned/judged by some snooty guests, sits alone at her mirror in her bedroom. She stares at herself. And then, awfully, she starts pounding on her skin, scratching at her face, trying to rip off that which makes her different from others. It’s breathtakingly honest, painful and beautifully played.
A political awakening is slow to come for someone like Belle. She has been raised like every other young white lady: she has been given music lessons, she speaks French, she does embroidery, and she is basically biding her time in cloistered safety until she is an adult. She is not expected to know about politics, to care about politics. That is not a woman’s place. When the family goes to London for the “debut” season, a black woman works in their city house. Her name is Mabel. Belle stares at Mabel, standing in the foyer in her white dress and white maid’s cap, and Mabel stares back, two black women, separated by a vast gulf of experience, but bonded together. (The whole Mabel thing is handled gorgeously and unexpectedly). One morning at breakfast, Belle interrupts the comfy silence of the family by asking, “Is Mabel a slave?” It’s the beginning. It’s the beginning of the foundations shifting. There’s a beautiful tension between all of these different aspects: the slow realization that her uncle is working on a case having to do with the slave trade (the Zong massacre, a groundbreaking case), her growing interest in the case, her growing unease with her position, and the terrifying realization that her heart has opened to John Davinier (Sam Reid) a young man studying under her father’s tutelage, a man unsuitable for her lofty position (he is the “son of a vicar”, a law student, and an abolitionist). Reid is marvelous!
How will Belle work it out? How will she integrate in a society that has a vested economic interest in keeping her on the margins, preferably in chains? Her very presence is an indictment.
Belle is a wonderful piece of work, the kind of movie people call “sweeping” and “epic” and all that, but here, it fits. It fits because its focus on the details, the small details, is so meticulous. Without that, we would have just another tale of do-gooder white people, a story engineered to make whites feel good about themselves retroactively. Belle doesn’t go that route. Belle is the center of the story. It is the whites who must change, but Belle must change, too. She must be brave enough to get involved, to say she, too, has a vested interest in what Britain wants to be, in how Britain makes its money, because she, too, is British. And what Britain decides to place value on tells her how SHE is valued. It’s her world, too.
Belle was talked about quite a bit when it first came out by the critics who loved it. But that was way back in the early months of the year, so the glow has dimmed a bit. If I had seen Belle before I made up my Top Movies of the Year list, I would have put it on the list.
And, selfishly, I can’t wait to see what Gugu Mbatha-Raw chooses to do next.