Comparing “Belle” to the black athletes of today
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle in “Belle”
When is a story about slavery not a slave story? And how is it current media still finds itself mired in coverage of stories about slavery, the same old black and white dynamic, that everyone is so uncomfortable to call slave stories? Are we – and will we forever be – slaves to this unending rhythm?
“Belle,” the new film from Amma Asante (“A Way of Life”), traversed the festival circuit and gained a fortuitous release date, coinciding with the spectacularly public shaming of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling at the hands of his one-time mistress V. Stiviano, a bi-racial woman who taped – or arranged the taping of – a private exchange featuring racist commentary from the sports and real estate mogul, long-investigated for his discriminatory practices. Sterling’s lording over his NBA empire has been compared to a plantation mentality and his relationship with Stiviano certainly bears the peculiar markings of such dynamics.
That the story of “Belle,” based on the true events surrounding the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the bi-racial illegitimate child of a Royal Navy officer who entrusted her to be raised by an aristocratic great-uncle, separates race from the slave experience by exploring its impact on the inner workings of family and social structure in the 1800s.
Intriguingly, Belle and her plight slips in and out of focus over the course of the narrative. She fights to hold the center opposite a high court case involving the debate over a fundamental aspect of the institution of slavery – the very assumption of claiming ownership of human beings, and thus the ability to treat (and dispose of) them as mere property.
What does it say that we find our conversations about Sterling and his opinions wading in similarly murky waters? Sterling claimed a degree of “ownership” of and “responsibility” for his players who, in his thinking, would be unable to provide for themselves without his benevolence. They need him, in his twisted logic, moreso than he needs them. He provided the game, the arena and the opportunity for them to run around and do their thing. Plantation mentality, indeed.
And, in much the same way as Belle, the (black) players recede from the spotlight of this media story. Nuanced complexity exists for both. Belle is a child of means, raised within the aristocracy with, upon her father’s death, an inheritance that guarantees her a degree of freedom not afforded to her poorer cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), with whom she has been brought up, as if they were sisters. Belle also stands apart from the black servants surrounding her, who begin to teach her the everyday subtleties of her blackness her white family cannot.
It is not much different for players like point guard Chris Paul, a multi-million dollar free agent brought to the Clippers to lead them to a title, or Deandre Jordan, soaring force of nature who, along with Blake Griffin, rains down thunder and lightning upon hapless opponents in the paint. Thanks to their contracts, these men of considerable means exist in rarefied air, freedom average folks can only dream of. Remember though, the average ticket buyers – and hometown faithful watching the games – of the Clippers are black and brown folks, to a much greater degree than the Lakers – Los Angeles’s other marquee team, which shares the same plantation, if you will.
And yet, all of a sudden, thanks to Sterling, they have been reminded they are not so different than those black and brown folks in the seats or watching the spectacle from home. Sterling sees them as one and the same. The real question is how do they see themselves?
Belle began the journey to self-awareness in isolation. For the Clippers players, the road was a public minefield. They bore their name only during the game, preferring to cover it on the sidelines. But the name, for them, was about more than Sterling’s ownership. It also belonged to their fans, many of whom were black and brown folks and a plethora of others who didn’t want to be associated with Sterling. They are the blood that cannot be denied.
Belle makes her aristocratic uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) – the judge whose ruling on the issue of slaves as property will shape the future of slavery in Britain – recognize a plain and obvious truth about personhood. No one, it seems, will be able to have the same kind of impact on Sterling, and it would be naïve to assume he’s the only person left holding onto these beliefs. So, let’s not act surprised the next time.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.