At first glance, Belle appears to be just another installment in the long line of British period films prepackaged to win awards. Set in the 18th century, complete with lavish sets, fabulous costumes and elaborate hairdos, the film is populated with British actors synonymous with quality. Tom Wilkinson, Emma Watson and Miranda Richardson are all in fine form, doing what they do best with aplomb and grace and complemented by lesser, but equally respected, actors like Matthew Goode, James Norton and Sarah Gadon. All the elements are there for the film to scream Oscar bait, but Belle is not typical for one important reason: who is behind it. This is not a film driven by middle-aged white men. Instead the creative force behind the film is a trio of black women headed by director Amma Asante, and rounded out by lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw and screenwriter Misan Sagay. Belle therefore provides a different sensibility than is usually seen in popular film and one that is very much needed in the filmic landscape.
Belle tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born to a poor black mother and an aristocratic white father. Upon her mother’s death, Dido is taken by her father to be raised by his uncle as nobility. Acknowledged as her father’s heir, Dido is financially independent, a rarity at the time for any woman and unheard of for one of colour.
It is a unique story and one that took almost a decade to bring to screen due to the difficulty of finding financial backing. Following its release in the festival circuit, there were some critics who expressed disappointment that the film did not take risks in its form and style like the story did. However, it is this restraint that makes Belle brilliant. It follows the accepted formula just enough to prevent it from being threatening to an industry dominated by white males, but the energy behind it is something new. Belle carries a decidedly female energy and point of view, not the one that is often found in rom-coms directed by men, but one that is created from the synergy of a group of women being given the chance to tell their own stories. What could have been just another forgettable period piece becomes memorable because it is a project that the participants passionately believe in.
Belle has the potential to be a stepping stone towards breaking both the gender and colour barrier in Hollywood. If it can generate enough box office revenue, it increases the chances of filmmakers like Amma Asante receiving funding for their projects. With Belle, Asante has created a film that has the potential to make her a bankable filmmaker with the people who hold all the power. It won’t happen overnight, but with more films like this, the way can be paved for greater diversity among filmmakers that are easily accessible to the general public.