By Shannon M. Houston, Shadow and Act
Last year, Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma” was the award-winning picture that seemed to most aptly highlight the similarities between 1965 America and the country’s climate in 2014. The violence leading up to the official march from Selma to Montgomery was easily contrasted with the violence subjected upon protesters in Ferguson, Missouri and, moving into this year, Baltimore, Cleveland and Ferguson again. Black and white images of police in riot gear were shared and, often, it was unclear what decade the images were from. But another film from a black woman director (Amma Asante) offered some powerful insight into the relationship between race, empathy and the judicial system, even as it presented a psychological portrait of white privilege and this complex notion of “proof” of racism. “Belle” was released in the UK in 2013 and in the U.S. in 2014, but given that names like Sam DuBose, Christian Taylor, Sandra Bland and Natasha McKenna are still fresh on our lips (or should be), this is a good time to revisit one of the film’s most powerful—and often overlooked—messages.
What activists (and many others suffering from racial discussion fatigue syndrome) have learned in the past year or so is that our definitions of “proof” of racism and racist institutions differ vastly from much of white America’s. It’s often not enough for white America to hear that a person of color has been killed by a police officer, and it’s often not enough for white America to hear that a small child was killed by a police officer, nor is it enough to read a headline about a man whose spine was severed in a police van. Instead, these murders are often interpreted as isolated incidents, some of which are indeed tragic, but ultimately do not prove that the killings are supported or encouraged by a racist system that’s as American as the stars and stripes.
For this reason, one of the most thrilling moments of television this year came when Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby stood at a podium in front of a group of reporters and pointedly explained why six officers were being charged with the murder of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. On news stations across the country, her explanation was accompanied by an all-important visual image: a map detailing the several points at which the accused officers each broke the law and gave Gray the rough ride that broke his spinal cord, causing him to fall into a coma and eventually die.
The image and the emphasis placed on the map by the news reports and by Mosby’s description brings to mind a key element in the “Belle” plot. Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the daughter of a white high ranking British navy officer and a black slave. Because her father chose to claim her, she was raised by his family and occupied a completely unique space in 17th century English society. While the film centers on Belle’s struggles in that space and what it means for her future and her ability marry, the story of her personal tribulations is told alongside the history of one of the most important decisions made about slavery in a court of law. (This is indeed what makes “Belle” such a compelling movie, where, much like a Toni Morrison novel, the personal and historical ramifications of institutionalized racism and brutality are explored, but often through the lens of a single woman.)
Belle’s great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) is a key figure in the film, as the head of the family that raises her while her father is away, but especially as the holder of the highest-ranking judicial position in the country, the Lord Chief Justice. His work and eventual ruling on a pivotal case between an insurance company and the Zong slave ship perfectly supplement Belle’s story of romantic and political enlightenment.
What’s especially useful about the film for us today is the narrative concerning Murray’s eventual decision to rule against the owners of the Zong, thus leading England to eventually outlaw slavery altogether. Mansfield has every reason to be against slavery, or at least one very compelling reason. He has proof in the grand-niece that he loves (who is educated, well-spoken, and quite the beast on piano) that black people are in no way beneath whites, and that they thrive under positive circumstances like any other member of the human race. However, he puts his duty to the country above any paternal instincts and is firm that he will rule as he always has, according to the law and not his emotions.
And in the end, he does just this. Dido Elizabeth Belle and any empathy he might have for her and for her mother’s family do not appear to weigh heavily on his mind, nor can he present them as evidence in the courtroom. Instead, it is the map of the slave ship’s route that changes everything. In her great-uncle’s study, Belle discovers maps showing that the slave ships deliberately passed by multiple replenishment ports where they could have received water for the slaves. This was key to the Zong case, as the captain had claimed that he was forced to throw the slaves overboard because of a lack of such supplies. Because he was forced to dispose of their “cargo,” he wanted the insurance company to pay up. Like Mosby’s map detailing the undeniable intentionality behind the death of Freddie Gray, the Zong map showed that at multiple points, the captain and crew chose to end the lives of the enslaved men, women and children on their ship. Both maps represent certain willful, calculated cruelty. If you look at them and consider the decision on the part of those in power to, at each point, continue on with a deadly journey, it becomes clear that these are murders by design.
Mansfield’s ruling against the Zong, a ruling he was able to make because of the maps, would go on to be a defining point in England’s history and one step towards the end of the country’s participation in the slave trade. But it’s important to understand that the court case was not a matter of the morality of slavery (although, in some ways, that was obviously a part of the discussion and the hype surrounding it), but a question of a faulty insurance claim. Similarly, Freddie Gray’s case (and others like it) can be (and often must be) divorced from racism in the courts. Racism is not illegal, nor is it a fact of which [white] others can be easily convinced. But there’s an incredible objectivity where maps are concerned. Even more than video footage (which can be edited, as we’ve seen), the maps in these two cases, centuries apart, are the indisputable evidence that a crime was committed.
The unfortunate takeaway here is that empathy is not—and has never been—enough to exact change. As Hari Ziyad puts it, “empathy won’t save us”:
“Relying on empathy almost always places the onus on the marginalized. They must reiterate how they are–and then be–much more like those who are not marginalized in order for their causes to matter. They must prove their pain in a way that their oppressors are willing to acknowledge. Sam Dubose’s head must be blown off publicly and violently, and those who desperately want to be on the officer’s side must judge his action to be one of unequivocal cruelty…
Relying on empathy means black people faced with horrific levels of police brutality must make white people “feel our pain.” It forces us to stream the bodies of our dead sons and daughters on a loop. It requires there to be dead sons and daughters in the first place. It always demands more spectacles of pain.”
In 1783 a powerful white man who loved, raised and believed in the humanity and worthiness of his grand-niece still needed a clear and concise map (along with the persuasion of another white man, John Davnier in the film) to speak out against a racist, vile institution. Today, many such men and women (along with powerful men and women of color) seem to need similarly persuasive evidence before they are willing to declare that black lives do not matter in America, and that this needs to change now. While Asante’s film, and scenarios like those in the cases of Gray, DuBose, Bland and countless others, teach us the importance of documenting everything possible in a fight for justice, they also prove that racism doesn’t end with maps and [seemingly indisputable] video evidence either.
It is lucky that we are living in a time where we can offer up more “proof” of, if not racism, then police brutality at the very least. Were it not for activists documenting their experiences on social media, and people using their camera phones to capture the violence that many of us have already known to exist, we might not have the bit of useful media attention that we do have. But it still isn’t enough. Looking back to Ziyad’s quote, it’s not even logical that those oppressed are still being asked to offer up more evidence of abuse. After all of these years (centuries, even), why are we still being asked to map out our own experiences of brutality?
In one of the most powerful scenes in all of “Belle,” the protagonist does the unthinkable and breaks off her engagement with a well-connected man. It’s unthinkable, because she—a black heiress who is only conditionally welcomed into a society to which she belongs, by status—should technically be grateful that a young man of such rank would even consider her. In one beautifully written take-down, she explains to the mother of her former betrothed why she is making such a bold choice:
“My greatest misfortune would be to marry into a family who would carry me as their shame, as I have been required to carry my own mother. Her apparent crime to be born negro, and mine to be to be the evidence. Since I wish to deny her no more than I wish to deny myself, you will pardon me for wanting a husband who feels ‘forgiveness’ of my bloodline is both unnecessary and without grace.”
Unless black Americans literally go back to West Africa, we cannot fully reject our very flawed American home as Belle rejected the man who, granted, wasn’t exactly like his outwardly racist elder brother, but still did not understand Belle’s true worth as a human. But in a fight where we will often and unfairly be asked to offer up proof of the violence against us, and in a world that still demands proof of the worthiness of black bodies, “Belle” is also a great reminder that rejecting this notion altogether and dismissing those who cannot already see the evidence of our humanity is also an integral part of our own knowledge of self worth and our own, individual fights for justice.
It would be nice if white America could respond resoundingly to the plight of their black brothers, sisters and other people of color, but we also have every right to stop mapping these injustices out for them.