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October 21st, 2017

Belle ***

New on DVD

The United States is darn good at integrating European immigrants into our society.

I’ll bet 9 out of 10 school kids don’t know that there was a time Đ not more than a century ago Đ when Greeks, Italians, Jews, and Irish immigrants weren’t considered Americans. They weren’t even considered white.

To the eternal credit of 20th century Americans, those prejudices quickly evaporated. The children of those immigrants were viewed simply as white Americans. Now no one views a union between a Jones and an O’Brien as a mixed marriage. And no one would think to call the offspring of Mr. Schmidt and Ms. Palladini a mixed-race child.

As wonderful and inclusive as America has been to European immigrants, our track record of treating African Americans has been abysmal. Every step on the slow road to equality has been met with furious opposition.

It took an act of Congress and National Guard troops to force Americans to integrate our schools. It took a horrific all-out war to abolish slavery.

It didn’t have to be that way. “Belle” tells the uplifting true story about how the British outlawed slavery in a much more peaceful and civilized manner.

The story begins in late 18th century England. A progressive young British naval officer presents his illegitimate, half-black daughter to his wealthy aunt and uncle. He leaves the little girl Đ Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) Đ in their care.

Belle’s great aunt and uncle Đ Lady and Lord Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson) – agree to raise her out of a sense of responsibility. But in time they come to view her as their own daughter and as a social equal.

The story follows Belle’s complicated road to finding love and a suitable husband, which in English high society were two totally different things.

The film really gets interesting when Lord Mansfield, who happened to be the Lord Chief Justice of England, has to rule on the most important slavery case in British legal history.

The case was a fight between an insurance company and a slave trading firm. En route to the Caribbean, the captain of a slave ship had intentionally tossed 133 sick people overboard because he calculated that the unfit Africans were worth more dead than alive. The insurance company claimed that this was insurance fraud and was refusing to pay for the lost cargo.

In part inspired by his love for Belle, Lord Mansfield ruled in favor of the insurance company. Even more, he argued that the very concept of insuring human beings as cargo was a dubious and immoral enterprise.

Lord Mansfield’s 1783 ruling set the stage for the slow but inevitable abolition of slavery in Great Britain. The slave trade was criminalized in 1807 and slave-holding in England grew increasingly shameful and rare. Slavery was abolished throughout the entire British Empire in 1833, without a shot being fired and without a Jim Crow-style backlash.

As the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants, I am eternally grateful to the United States for accepting me and giving me full equality. At the same time, I completely understand why many black Americans do not feel the same gratitude.

“Belle” is a reminder to American viewers of how shamefully slow and resistant our country has been to grant our black neighbors equality by comparing it to a country that freed its slaves with relative civility and ease.

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