Belle’s genre pedigree includes romantic mixed-race precedents such as Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea as well as Merchant-Ivory’s 1995 Jefferson in Paris, wherein Thandi Newton’s portrayal of Sally Hemings explored much of the same racial angst as Belle. Thus Asante’s genteel approach avoids any pointed, Hogarthian political critique of its period characters. Within costume-drama decorum, Asante finds as much pathos and political resonance as Foxx, yet she comes up with a more challenging expression.
The sisterly relationship between Dido and her white cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) repeats the female inequality cutesified in The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s 2009 animated entry in the race-hustling race. “We are but their property” is how Elizabeth describes England’s patriarchal system to Dido, whose deepest misgivings are roused when she is made to pose for a family portrait. Dido fears that being depicted on canvas in a subservient position will confirm her misfortune, bringing her predicament to the fore.
Dido’s concern for her artistically rendered image — concern with posterity — raises the issue of how race, identity, and politics are handled in art. It’s an original approach that Asante essays better than she outlines events that preceded Great Britain’s 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (so beautifully dramatized in Michael Apted’s Wilberforce biography Amazing Grace and referenced in Spielberg’s Amistad).
Belle’s art-politics motif helps further expose Foxx’s trite fantasy/Trayvon Martin act. Electro personifies freakish victimization — unlike Dido’s too-human dilemma — for a cheap rhetorical effect satisfying political fashion. Asante and delicate Mbatha-Raw go deeper, revealing the uneasiness of someone who’s objectified as a totem of racial condescension. (At one heartrending point, Dido anguishes over the mystery of her own flesh.)
Through Belle’s closing image of the actual portrait of Dido as playmate to her cousin, Assante questions our culture’s visual exploitation of racial politics. The painting’s superficial charm (its quaint depiction of historical disparity, painted by Johann Zoffany, currently hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland) is in contrast to its camouflage of genuinely appalling custom — and that’s the very problem of Foxx’s flashy-pathetic Electro. His overexplicit bitterness, rancor, and destructiveness are glorified through the cartoonish F/X destruction but amounts to a moral and esthetic disaster.
Belle’s historical romance is too decorous to be truly moving, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 offers the worst kind of “Obama Effect” escapism since it actually keeps viewers remote from the emotional turmoil of historic suffering and its social impact. Jamie Foxx’s moneymaking political stunt leaves us the poorer.
— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the upcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.