I Am Here! Belle and the Inner Lives of Black Women
Last weekend, the hashtag #HowMediaWritesWOC took the Twittersphere by storm. The term media encompassed all forms of mass communication, exploring that way that women of color are written not only in film and television (the most interesting was the unbelievable evolution of Lavender Brown from the Harry Potter films) but also how women are represented in print and broadcast journalism.
The conversation it catalyzed was endless, causing the hashtag to trend nationally in America and attracting women, and men, of diverse ethnic backgrounds from across the globe. And, if you have a few spare hours – because, honestly, that is how long it will take to truly absorb the raw emotion and honesty being shared with the world – I encourage you to check out the hashtag on Twitter.
What became evident as the conversation progressed was the shared disappointment at the ways in which WOC are represented in media in comparison to the ways in which women who are not from ethnic minorities are represented. Compared to men, all women still suffer from under-representation, but when it comes to WOCs not only do they suffer from under-representation, they are forced to endure mis-representation as well, a symptom from the lack of WOC ‘creators’.
Film and television still struggle to represent the rich inner lives of WOCs. Instead of subjects, they become objects and that’s mainly down to a lack of understanding and knowledge of the inner worlds of these women.
Yet when the inner life of a black women is represented, her representation is received with praise because audiences and critics still seek depth in their characters and the opportunity to forge an emotional connection, it is basic human nature. And though only four British films directed by black women have made it into UK cinemas so far, this was the case for Amma Asante the black British and female director of Belle, a costume drama received positively by both British and international audiences, (proving that there is an audience for these marginalized voices). Belle, released earlier this year, was inspired by the real life Dido Elizabeth Belle, the bi-racial and illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat, bought up by her father’s family.
Belle has its flaws – the male characters can feel like caricatures and the romantic plot sticks to convention – but the film has a rich and beautiful aesthetic that, visually, makes it fit right in with the plethora of Austen adaptations (because according to the BBC, you can never have too much Austen).
Most importantly, Asante is able to represent the inner life of a woman we know only through a painting and various historical records. Belle’s life was not detailed in diaries, (few black women had that privilege) yet Asante and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Belle, are able to explore her inner feelings using their own experiences of straddling the cultural line in Britain.
In an article in the Independent, Asante describes how in the original painting of Belle, ‘Belle points to her face, as if to say, “I am here!”’. The thousands of women who made the hashtag #HowMediaWritesWOC trend last weekend, similarly declared, I am here!
Only four films from black women have seen UK cinema releases, but black women all over Britain are making and posting content wherever they are given the space. They may not have the audience of Asante, but they nevertheless declare, I am here!