In 1781, a British slave trading ship ran low on drinkable water after the crew made navigational errors. In an effort to cash in on the insurance that was on the slaves’ lives as cargo, they drowned 133 slaves by throwing them overboard. This would be the source of a legal dispute that would go all the way up to the Lord Chief Justice of England, William Murray. A man who also happened to be raising a biracial great-niece.
Belle is a film about that niece, a woman named Dido Elizabeth Belle. She was the illegitimate daughter of Murray’s nephew, although he claims her and loves her dearly. He shows up on his uncle’s doorstep with his daughter, being unable to care for her and begging them to take her in and treat her as their own. The film’s first moments are among its most heart-wrenching, when Murray says “You didn’t tell us she was black.”
The film gives us many things you’d expect to see in a movie about abolition. Even being raised as a free woman, and a woman whom Murray loves dearly, she is not equal. She does not always eat with her family, is hardly expected to be able to marry, and her lineage is regarded as an embarrassment. She toes the line as carefully as she can in the beginning, but gradually grows to be more outspoken about her convictions, horrified by the injustice of slavery, and insulted at the way others treat her. This is all somewhat predictable, but no less emotionally powerful because of it.
But perhaps of even greater significance is the film’s nuanced portrait of William Murray. Murray is an important figure in British abolition, a Lord Chief Justice who made multiple rulings that encouraged abolition. He’s almost a civil rights hero of sorts, although certainly a less well-known one than William Wilberforce. Yet the picture we see of him in this film is not a one-dimensional hero. Instead, it’s one of a conflicted man who doesn’t like slavery, who thinks that things ought to be different, and yet he feels the pressure to abide by the rule of law over conscience. Rather than an inhuman hero, Murray is a relatable man who ultimately does the right thing.
Murray’s passion for the law and privately held convictions for the injustice of slavery come together in John Davinier. Davinier is the son of a vicar who doesn’t want to pursue a careeer in ministry. Rather, he has a passion for the law, and wants to use it to change the world. It’s all very romantic, of course, but Davinier’s character quickly morphs from that of an idealist to an activist. Early in the film he is taken under Murray’s tutelage, but Davinier’s penchant for activism over a judicial neutrality drives a stiff wedge in their relationship. Under the surface, however, is the idea that Davinier is actually what Murray’s principles acted out consistently would in fact look like. But his priorities of Lord Chief Justice lead him to reject Davinier, particularly with the rebuke that unbridled emotion is unfit in the practice of law.
These character interplays are moving and passionate, to say nothing of Dido’s sister-cousin Elizabeth, their brother suitors, and the political culture that is implied throughout the film. The acting is nop-notch, the story and pacing superb. But of particular note here is not just an eighteenth century civil rights movement, or even a love story. Rather, it is the theme that pervades the entire film, and leaves a true, lasting impact on the viewer:
Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.
This phrase is not original to the film. It is translated from Latin, and was applied particularly to British law practice starting in the early seventeenth century, and became a phrase adopted by abolitionist lawyers as something of a rallying cry. The maxim itself is quoted multiple times in the film, and frames the question that Murray is considering all through the story: what, in this case, is justice? Is justice to rule on the law as it exists in the books, or does justice have a deeper foundation? Davinier remarks in this shortly before the case decision, in one of the film’s most poignant quotes. And it is, in effect, a good way to end this review, because it sums up quite well just what this film’s true value is.
“Laws that allow us to diminish the humanity of anybody are not laws. They are frameworks for crime. And, quite frankly, I really do not care if you, as an individual, are without character or conscience, but a land whose laws sanction, not control, the barbarous among its citizens, that is a country whose hope is lost.”
Rating: 9/10. The applications of the film to a Christian, particularly one who cares about current events and public policy, is practically endless.