“I show up on TV because I have the cover of a powerful white man.” – Melissa Harris-Perry, The New School, Black Female Voices series, November 9, 2013
True favor isn’t often courted. It is bestowed by condition or order of birth; it stems from long observation, from arbitrary affinity. It is built from the bestower’s personal ordination or, just as likely, from sheer auspice.
If you have to curry it, the favor will be fleeting. If you must work hard to retain it, you will find yourself in a position most precarious: the circle within which you mingle has an imperceptible crack, and you will be all too aware that you are one quip from slipping through it.
In Amma Asante’s gorgeous film, Belle, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is a favored niece of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Dido was also biracial, her father a navy admiral who left her in Murray’s care, following her enslaved mother’s death in the 1760s.
The film explores this central conceit — that it is favor which saves Dido from a life of enslavement, favor that elevates her above conditions of servitude within the Murray manse. Belle makes a point of asserting that the only reason Dido is left with the Murrays is because of her father’s blood. Much is made of her legal right to residence in the household. But we know what tenuous claims (if any) white blood afforded blacks during the 18th century. If biracial children were to be free at all, it was solely at their white parent’s behest.
Favor, then, was as much a requisite for freedom as moral, legal or genetic imperative.
When Belle arrives at the house as a girl, her first exchange with Murray establishes that he finds her “clever.” They are looking at paintings of their family in the halls of his vast estate (paintings which will be a recurring theme, as the film is based on a real rendering of Dido and her white cousin, Elizabeth, with whom she was raised). In fact, Dido’s cleverness is noted by all the white men she meets.
In the Austen tradition after which Belle seems patterned, a woman’s cleverness is a commodity. It aids within a larger social system meant to undermine and underestimate women. In tales like these, men are always a bit surprised when women are clever. We can tell the good fathers and brothers and suitors from the despicable ones when they do not scoff at or feel threatened by a woman’s quick wit, talent or intellect.
Dido has three such good men near her. First her father, who’s only seen briefly, plucking her from the slums and insisting she is loved. He is so effusive in favoring her, it’s tempting for viewers to doubt him. Instead, his adoring tone sets up what will come for Dido: a charmed life in which her uncle and an eventual abolitionist suitor, John Davinier, both protect and praise her with the same fervor.
I loved Belle. I loved its delicate treatment of race. We aren’t often offered portraits of 18th century life for blacks who aren’t enslaved. We aren’t often offered an onscreen reprieve from the brutality marking the era.
But this gentility is also troublesome. Dido is sheltered enough that she is unaware of the slave ship insurance case her uncle in the process of deciding until Mr. Davinier tells her. She has to plead with him to do so.
Unlike her uncle, Mr. Davinier expects Dido to be more “in touch with her blackness,” more vocal about it and less concerned with the frivolities of upper class life. (That expectation is compounded by his initial resentment that Dido’s station of birth is higher than his own.)
Meeting Mr. Davinier does, in fact, lead to a racial awakening. We know that Dido has never felt fully integrated into the Murray household; she’s required to dine alone and only invited to certain functions. She is fully aware that it’s because she’s biracial, but she also expects a change in station. She is surprised when she is not permitted to court as openly as her white cousin does. She is surprised whenever inequity presents itself at home.
One gets the sense that, if Mr. Davinier had not arrived to provide Dido with broader racial context, she simply would not have had it. (Here, it’s worth noting that — at least for part of the film — there is one other black woman present: a free black maid named Mabel, whose only lines in the film are offering to help Dido comb her hair and protecting Dido from being caught sneaking out. If the two women had been permitted more screen time or a single private conversation, we likely would have had the film’s only Bechdel Test-passing scenes, and Dido’s context for race would not have been confined to such narrow white gazes.)
Aside from Victorian fantasy, Belle is also part cautionary tale. It warns us against a race-blind approach to transracial adoption. There is no sheltering black children from the atrocities they may face beyond the gates of an all-white household. And it’s foolhardy for both parent and child not to anticipate how large race will loom in a black child’s life — even when that child is favored.
Late in the film, William Murray asks Dido just exactly what it is she wants. He is resigned and weary, convinced he’s given her everything he possibly could. He’s right. He has. But providing her a personal insulation from racism hasn’t been enough.
Earlier this year, Melissa Harris-Perry found herself in trouble with transracial adoptive parents for hosting a segment that featured a photograph of Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandchild. A panelist quipped, “One of these things is not like the others” and Harris-Perry chuckled knowingly at the truth of it. Kieran Romney will be raised in an all-white household in conditions of great wealth, but he will not experience life like the rest of his family.
Perhaps it is easier to make that point in a 90-minute film than in a 5-minute TV segment. But here it is: the favor of powerful white men does not shield black children from the blight of racism, neither does “white blood” when it courses under black skin.
It’s a lesson every child of color living under the awnings of powerful white families must learn. Even within their crystalline castles, life for us won’t be no crystal stair.