“Belle”–Ringing for Justice




Of the many movies involving slave trade, films like “Belle”, “12 Years a Slave” and “Amistad”  attempt to view the atrocities of slavery from the perspective of a slave or, in the case of Belle, an illegitimate daughter of a British nobleman, Admiral Sir John Lindsay (in a brief role by Matthew Goode).  Inspired by a 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray, the story looks into who Belle may have been, since few facts about her actually exist today.

In the film, Dido (“Belle”, played by the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield  (a consistently charming performance by Tom Wilkinson), the highest judge (Lord Chief Justice) in the British Empire and second only to the king in power.  Belle’s aristocratic lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her African mother’s status as a slave prevents her from full stature as a noblewoman.

In this historical drama British writer and director Amma Asante has laid the narrative against the backdrop of the infamous legal case involving the Zong massacre (1781) in which more than 140 slaves were drowned in order to obtain compensation for their  “human cargo” from the ship’s insurance company.   Although the ship owners claimed they had to throw the slaves overboard in order to save the crew and the ship,  and also because of a shortage of drinking water, the insurance company refused to pay, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to prove that drowning was unavoidable.  Without the ship’s logs, the insurance company placed the burden of proof on the ship owners to show evidence that the slaves’ deaths were necessary.   With Dido Belle as the beloved daughter of his nephew, the personal becomes political as the Chief Justice develops his position on   Britain’s slave trade.  At court Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s  decision leads to the end of slavery in Great Britain in The Slave Trade Act of 1807  (almost sixty years before the US formally abolishes slave trade in 1865).

“Belle” is a very moving personal account of a freewoman’s innocence in the face of the pervasive racist realities around her and  her courageous confrontation with societal forces, which refuse to accept her the way she wants to be.  A wonderful cinematic narrative about a little-known episode in history and well worth watching,  although fiction enters into the tale of “Belle”.

[“Belle” is now playing in theaters.  Another retelling of this legal case can be seen in Season 2, Episode 1 of “Garrow’s Law” (see my review of December 11, 2012), available on Netflix.]


SideTour–When You Don’t Want to Feel Like a Tourist


On a recent vacation in New York City, we thought we would try out SideTour (www.sidetour.com), an online marketplace for unusual, offbeat experiences and activities.  Originally designed not for tourists but for locals who want to discover secret treasures in their own neighborhood, the company has now begun to expand to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego,  San Francisco, and Seattle. Acquired by Groupon in mid-2013,  SideTour continues to gain momentum and expand its repertoire while continuing to keep group size between 5-12 participants on average and costs within the $25-85 price range. These are not cookie-cutter offers and even more customization can be provided by some of the “hosts” who offer “side tours”.

Competing with other sites,   SideTour’s  website claims  to focus on events led by experts who have been screened for experience, personality, and expertise.   In New York you can get together to dine at a chef’s home, take private or semi-private cooking classes, see art collections after the museum is closed, and sketch from museum collections onsite, just to list a few of the  imaginative selections online.  We signed up for five tours including  sushi and dumpling classes, sketching at a museum, and a tour of the Met emphasizing gossip about the particular art being viewed.  The fifth side tour was cancelled two weeks in advance for lack of additional participants.  Although I read online that refunds were slow to be credited, we did not have that problem!  SideTour3


We did notice that tours which had been given repeatedly, seemed to be more polished in terms of preparation and information.  We tried a couple of “newbies” and enjoyed them too, even though this time next year they will have undoubtedly improved.  SideTour was fun and different. I highly recommend that you check out the offerings before planning a trip to one of the SideTour cities!


“Nebraska” –A Husky Tale in the Cornhusker State


In Alexander Payne’s Academy Award-nominated black-and-white drama, we see the story of a parent with unfulfilled dreams who has damaged adult children who care deeply but are also deeply wounded. A companion piece to “August: Osage County” (see my review January 29, 2014).

The film opens with Woody Grant (Bruce Dern in the performance of his career!)  wandering the streets of  Billings, Montana.   Woody’s son, David (Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame) is called by the police to pick up his septuagenarian father who wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect a $1 million sweepstakes prize he believes he has won.  The all-too-common  mail scam  seems to be discounted by Woody who naively believes his luck has changed. Kate (the scene-stealing June Squibb) berates her husband as a fool for  insisting on collecting the money. David and his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk from “Breaking Bad” and “Fargo), a local news anchor, discuss putting Woody in a retirement home,  hinting of dementia or senility.  David reluctantly decides to drive his father to Lincoln, much to Kate’s and his brother’s dismay.  Perhaps he can unlock some of the secrets of his father’s past and grow closer to him on the road.

“Nebraska” is stark and lonely: an austere and  bleak landscape of place and mind, where life doesn’t seem to change and dreams remain unfulfilled.  Family dynamics locked into roles of self-deception echo and evoke “August”,   this time between father and sons, not mother and daughters.

The  brutally frank portrayal of aging and unhealed wounds are  at times comical and always heart-breaking.  Forte, best known as a zany comic actor,  makes an impressively restrained dramatic debut as a man who longs to connect yet is reflexively depressed. Odenkirk, as Ross, evolves in surprising and sympathetic ways as a witness to both his brother and father’s decline.

Ultimately, however,  this is Bruce Dern’s film.    His energy is still  there, only now beneath the surface:  dissipated, his rage turned inward, his hearing aid turned up a little to hear the voices inside his own head.

“Philomena”–The Story of a Mother’s Loss


It has been almost eleven years after the groundbreaking and award-winning film “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002), a fictionalized drama based on three young Irish women who survive the dehumanizing abuse as inmates of a Magdalene Sisters Asylum, one of many that existed in Ireland and other parts of the Catholic world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Now, we have the remarkable and moving story of Philomena Lee, in the movie named after her, in which she searches for over fifty years for the little boy taken from her as a teenager.

“Philomena”, nominated for four major Academy Awards, has focused on an American journalist’s journey to help Philomena Lee recover from the agonizing, unhealed wound of losing her child while in a Magdalene laundry for pregnant and other “immoral” teenage girls. The asylums were named after the prostitute Mary Magdalene. The last laundry was closed in 1996.

The story focuses on a determined aging Irish woman who never forgot the son she was forced to give up, even after marriage and the birth of a daughter.  In a rather miraculous series of events, Philomena is able to identify the son, adopted by rich Americans,  whose name was changed to Michael Hess. There are some amazing coincidences and investigative reporting on the part of her advocate, the journalist Martin Sixsmith. Accompanying Philomena on her emotional, unexpected journey to find her son and learn of  his contribution to American politics, Sixsmith is unfailing in his support.

A powerfully acted film with the great Judi Dench as Philomena and the equally phenomenal Steve Coogan as Sixsmith, the actual horrors of the Magdalene laundries are not as vividly portrayed as in the earlier movie “The Magdalene Sisters”, but the personalization of the horror in one loving woman’s healing is unforgettable.  Not depressing by any means, the strong-willed Philomena seems to have learned that life requires forgiveness in order to heal.