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As dramas (melodramas?) go that prod and poke and preach, you could certainly see worse than Amma Asante's film Belle, which addresses racism, sexism, and classism in 18th century English society—and in so doing, it addresses the racism, sexism, and classism in our own.
The film spurs on some interesting (and frightening) questions: Did I recognize myself in the antagonists? Did I think that Dido was making trouble rather than demanding due justice? Where is the line between working for reconciliation and betraying a self-righteous savior complex?
For these questions alone, Belle may be worth seeing. But as a historical drama? It doesn't hold up—and in this case, that's a true shame.
The filmmakers freely admit the film is speculation—inspired, really, by a painting. And that's fair enough. Sometimes, for the sake of storytelling, filmmakers should reduce or amplify stories in order to tell them (yes, even historical ones).
But there are times when revisions to history are so excessive that they kill the poignancy of a story.
For Belle, this comes in the form of John Davinier. In the film, Davinier is an aspiring lawyer seeking racial justice in a slavery-plagued world. But in reality, he was a gentleman's steward who probably never saw the grand interior of a high court.
Davinier's statements are more French Revolution than English abolitionism. Any shadow of Christian conviction is not only absent from his character and the film as a whole, but—counter to history—it's usurped by sentiments of the transcendent human spirit and common welfare.
Davinier even juxtaposes himself against his father, the vicar in Dido's parish. While the reverend is concerned with religion and the Bible, Davinier is concerned with laws that will actually change people's behavior.
Let's be fair: Plenty of apologists beat the drum of Christian history simply to make noise. And certainly, entire cultures have never had institutionalized slavery and have also never experienced widespread Christian influence. There were plenty of abolitionists in the United States and Europe who were secularists. And plenty of so-called Christians used the Bible to make their case for slavery. So there is no sense in trying to prove that abolition was (or is today) a purely Christian cause.
But in this particular case—the case of the massacre on the slaving ship Zong, which is central to the film—Christianity mattered. It mattered because there really were people who advocated to the powers of England on behalf of the men, women, and children who were murdered aboard the Zong. They existed in real historical time and place.
Their names were Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano.
Sharp wrote the first English tract against the slave trade. He not only came down hard against the slavers in what is the film's principal legal matter (whether the Zong's crew had the right to kill and claim insurance money for, as they would have done for cattle, the abducted Africans for lack of water), but he tried (and failed) to have them prosecuted for murder.
Sharp's involvement in abolitionism—he eventually was elected the first chairman of The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade—and other social causes was fired by his intense study of the Christian Scriptures. In fact, when he wasn't fighting for the outcast, the enslaved and the oppressed, he was a Biblical grammarian. There's even a hermeneutical principle named after him—Granville Sharp's Rule—which holds to this day.
The film also ignores Olaudah Equiano, an African man who was at one time enslaved and later became a prominent abolitionist and shared his story in a widely read autobiography. Equiano became a Christian while in chains, and when his freedom was finally acknowledged by the slavers who kidnapped him, he dedicated his life to the fight against slavery.
It was Equiano who brought the details of the Zong massacre to Sharp's attention in the first place—no doubt at great personal risk. He was a Methodist, driven by his deep faith and inspired by George Whitefield's evangelistic efforts.
These men should have been in Belle, perhaps even to the minimization or exclusion of the nearly-fictional John Davinier. And the Dido-Davinier romance should have played much more minor a role, in any case. History may not be the last word in filmmaking, but it is an important one, and Belle suffers for excluding Sharp and Equiano.
The reason they should have been included is not to wave a flag that says that "Christianity is good for the world" or "abolition was solely a Christian cause," or some other trite slogan. Rather, it is because these two men were worth honoring, and they could not have been honored without attention to that which animated them: radical commitment to the lordship of Christ and love for their neighbors.
See Belle, yes. But when the time comes for cheering, cheer for those excluded—those who, literally for Christ's sake, worked hard toward abolition and reconciliation, and who have since been forgotten.
Eric Dorman lives in Nashville with his wife, Alexandra Sciaretta Dorman, and is a member of St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Tennessee. Find him on Twitter at @ericdsdorman.