Tag Archives: Belle

Beyond the Cliches

Beyond the Lights

by Hope Madden

Don’t let the Beyond the Lights trailer fool you. What looks like a by-the-numbers melodrama about selling your soul for success does follow a familiar trajectory, but it does a fine job with that journey.

Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) teeters at the edge of superstardom: she’s just won a Billboard award for her rap duet with hip hop giant Kid Culprit (a wonderfully sketchy Richard Colson Baker – better known as Cleveland’s own Machine Gun Kelly – in his screen debut), and her first album, releasing in days, is poised to break records. But the troubled star is buckling under the pressures and compromises.

In comes Kaz (Nate Parker), or “Officer Hero” as Noni’s fans come to call him.

Yes, his grounded do-gooder character wants Noni to respect herself, and the big question is whether the pull of fame will tear them apart, which is a wildly predictable set up. But writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) knows what she’s doing. She certainly cobbles together a familiar frame – part Gypsy, part Glitter, part Mahogany – but somehow the final product feels, if not fresh, at least relevant.

Mbatha-Raw stands out in her second powerful performance this year, after her stunning turn in Belle. She never resorts to clichés. She’s able to craft a character with both an entirely believable public persona as well as a blossoming personality of her own. There’s not a false note in the performance.

Parker’s less effective – in fact, though he’s turned in worthy performances throughout his career, here he’s strangely wooden. Still, the two have some chemistry and Mbatha-Raw is so compelling that you’re hard press to take your eyes off her anyway.

Not that Prince-Bythewood doesn’t offer plenty of reasons to look away. Her camera misses no opportunity to draw attention to Parker’s striking physique.

Minnie Driver impresses as the stage mother, and Prince-Bythewood’s script offers plenty for her sink her teeth into. Threadbare plot aside, the writing is sharp and the direction is incisive. The opening scene confirms that this is not going to be a color by numbers affair, and the filmmaker peppers scenes with strong imagery as she gives her cast room to breathe and create memorable, dimensional characters.

The weakness of the central plot is problematic, and though the filmmaker takes advantage of the trope to draw attention to some gaping holes in our current culture, it still leaves a stale aftertaste. But if the storyline isn’t memorable, Mbatha-Raw is – and she’s worth the ticket price.


A Fresh Take on History For Your Queue

Who’s in the mood for a couple of fascinating historical dramas, the kind that make you rethink your history lessons? Because Belle, releases to DVD today, and it’s the fact-based tale of a bi-racial girl raised by her aristocratic grandparents in 18th Century England. Well told and perfectly cast, with the always flawless Tom Wilkinson playing the family patriarch and a wondrous break out turn by Gugu Mbath-Raw in the lead, the film draws parallels you never knew existed between past and present.

If you’re looking for a little wilder, true ish (or at least rumored to be true) story that may cause you to rethink everything you know about British history and literature, have a gander at Anonymous. The usually unwatchably bombastic Roland Emmerich dials it back a bit – but not too much – to sketch a treacherous, traitorous, sordid story of the real William Shakespeare. Excellent performances and a savvy screenplay by John Orloff keep this one fresh and entertaining.


Portrait of a Lady



by George Wolf


A scandalous affair. An innocent child. A society obsessed with money, power, and its own prejudices.

Belle is the latest historical drama to remind us that sometimes, the past looks pretty familiar.

It’s based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born in the 1700s as the bi-racial daughter of a slave and an Admiral in the British Navy. She was raised by members of her father’s aristocratic family, standing alone as an anachronistic mix of wealth, prestige, and brown skin.

Actually, the story of how writer Misan Sagay came to find Belle could be a movie in itself.

Inspiration leapt from a painting of Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, that Sagay (who adapted Their Eyes Were Watching God for TV) encountered while in Scotland as a college student. After years of research, Sagay’s screenplay mixes fact with poetic liberties to make Belle’s story truly compelling.

The cast is letter-perfect. In the lead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers a breakout performance, infusing Belle with an effective mix of intellect, wonder, spirit and hurt. As family patriarch Lord Mansfield, Tom Wilkinson is…well, Tom Wilkinson, an actor who’s seemingly impervious to missteps.

Director Amma Asante not only gives the film a fitting majestic sheen, but delicately balances Jane Austen-style period romance with serious social commentary and historical heft. At times, Belle flirts with overplaying its hand on both fronts, but Asante displays fine instincts for restraint before the storytelling takes too obvious a turn.

It is a fascinating story and a completely satisfying film. When Asante finally throws her trump card and you glimpse the inspirational portrait, it’s clear that, whatever barbs historians may throw, they can’t keep Belle from hitting a bullseye.