The Black British Period Drama

This blog explores mixed-race representations in British period dramas Belle (Asante, 2013) and Wuthering Heights (Arnold, 2011). Both are written and directed by women – in Belle’s case a Black-British woman – and both star mixed-race actors: in Wuthering Heights Solomon Glave and James Howson play Heathcliff as, respectively, child and adult, while Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido in Belle. The biopic Belle traces the journey of a young girl into adult self-awareness as she comes to terms with her double consciousness as a mixed-race English aristocrat limited by both her race and sex. Much has been made of its revisionist approach to historical events, but, as Matthew Hughey (2013: 351) notes: ‘film is a field of social and cultural negotiation through which different interpretations and meanings vie for a place in, or better yet as, history’. While early 19th century Belle’s Dido campaigns against slavery, in late 18th century’s Wuthering Heights mixed-race pauper Heathcliff actually experiences its horrors, against the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors.

While the British empire’s economy depended on the slave trade, in Georgian Britain itself there were about 15,000 black people – mainly in London – and less than a third of that population was free. The mixed-race protagonists of these films provide an embodied memory of British history, yet when Wuthering Heights was released many critics referred to the shock of seeing a black man playing Heathcliff. In doing so, they misread the actor’s mixed ethnicity, and rewrote several narratives, not least that of the text itself in which Heathcliff is described as a lascar or gypsy, with dark features and an upbringing in the Caribbean. In the film, Heathcliff’s enslavement in both the Caribbean and Britain illustrates the global nature of the slave trade. And, as with Belle, the period drama’s casting reflects the reality that Black Britain is not a recent phenomenon.

David Olusuga’s 2016 BBC series ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’ expounded on this point, drawing attention to the 3rd century North African Roman troops stationed along Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria, as well as the sub-Saharan African woman who lived in Sussex during the same period, the African-American Loyalists who moved to Liverpool during the 1770s, and the Somalian dockmen who settled in Cardiff in the 1880s.

Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is set in Yorkshire in the 1700s, and takes as its central focus the early section of Bronte’s book through its exposition of the relationship between white Cathy and mixed-race Heathcliff. As with the book, Heathcliff’s ethnicity is ambiguous and very little is known of his past. Following the traditions of realism, we learn about the characters as they do, and live with them in the immediacy of the moment, experiencing events as they occur rather than having a god’s eye view of the diegetic world. This lack of access, along with the film’s lack of dialogue or score – and long takes – enables the audience to sit with the characters, watching them evolve into the adults we see in the latter half of the film. The intimate style provokes empathy enabling a personal understanding of the characters’ fears and desires and encouraging identification with the historically much maligned mixed-race male, and the interracial couple.

Heathcliff’s characterisation does however follow the well-worn tragic mulatto template to a great extent – he is the only non-white present, and lives with a family who racially abuse him and treat him like a farm animal. His own family is never discussed or shown onscreen, and he has no friends beyond Cathy. He is isolated and almost silent. He is passed over by his white lover, for a white man. He rises to a position of wealth and power but gains little joy from it. His relationship with Cathy is positioned as incestuous (they are adoptive siblings), which follows on from early screen associations of racial mixing with incest – mirroring Jim Crow legislation which saw the two taboos as equally heinous – from 1912’s The Debt to Oscar Micheaux’s Veiled Aristocrats (USA, 1932) and God’s Step Children (1938). And, as in 1936’s Showboat, there is a scene where the interracial couple share blood, breaking the taboo of miscegenation. Cathy does this as evidence of her unconditional love for Heathcliff, yet unlike the 1936 film, in Wuthering Heights the exchange is sexualised and animalised as Cathy (Shannon Beer) licks Heathcliff’s (Solomon Glave) bloody wounds, injuries caused by her brother’s abuse. The mixture of tender compassion and abject eroticism between children make it an uncanny moment, which positions their romance as non-normative. And, following screen conventions, the mixed male becomes more tragic as he ages. Having been shaped by the abuse he suffered as a child, Heathcliff’s (James Howson) obsessive love for Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) takes on a perverse quality as an adult, culminating in necrophilia.

Heathcliff, like Dido in Belle, is positioned as facing a similar level of oppression as his white female counterpart in that both rely on white men for their position in society. Having been born into slavery in the Caribbean and escaped only to become homeless in England, he is the recipient of Christian charitywhich leads to his adoption by Cathy’s white family, the Earnshaws. But upon his adoptive father’s death, his adoptive brother returns him to a state of slavery in England.

While the film uses familiar tropes in representing mixedness, it also subjectivises the mixed-race male.  To quote Jonathan Murray (2016): ‘The events of the first 65 minutes are witnessed almost entirely from the physical (and, by extension, psychological) vantage point of this traumatised pubescent boy; the narrative’s second half then pivots around the perspective of the young adult Heathcliff… Arnold’s Wuthering Heights thus unfolds as a chain of pregnant, largely wordless vignettes in which an imperfectly maturing human being watches, wonders and wants in relation to his wider world.’

Here he is not a sexual commodity, or a signifier of the civilising efforts of the colonial regime. Rather, the film uses him to highlight the brutality of the period through the physical and psychological abuse he suffers. The harsh landscape of the moors in the cold, damp conditions of northern England is illuminated through Arnold’s use of colour, framing and sound, making the space itself appear savage and hostile. As Amy Raphael notes, Arnold’s cinematic work ‘is always happy to lean heavily on nature as a symbol of innermost and often unarticulated feelings’ (2011: 35).

While the film isromantic in many ways, dealing in the beauty of the natural world and the freedom it offers, this is accompanied by a muddy, grimy, murkiness which offers no respite. As children their shabby home provides little shelter from the storms outside, and heat is only provided sparingly. Of course, Heathcliff rarely experiences even these mild comforts as he is forced to sleep in the barn with the animals. His experience evidences the confusion regarding the legality of slavery on British soil. Britain had a series of vague policies regarding slavery which allowed the practice to operate in the colonial motherland as a legal or semi-legal practice.

This brings us on to Belle, a film which centralises the historical context of the abolition movement in Britain, again using the mixed character as a vehicle to externalise the complexities of the slave trade on a physical and psychological level.

The film is a biopic of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1763 – 1804) a ‘shadow’ both in the image and in life. Her father, John Lindsay, was an English Royal Navy captain and her mother is presumed to have been Maria Belle, a slave on a Spanish ship in the Caribbean, which was captured by Lindsay. He claims that she died in the slums and he rescued the child, but there is no concrete information available. Lindsay sent Dido from the Caribbean to live with his childless uncle, the Earl of Mansfield in England, so she grew up as a lady at the heart of the aristocracy. But, as she notes in the film, her status was vague; while named after the famous Queen of Carthage (in modern day Tunisia), she was seen as higher than the servants but lower than the aristocracy, and lived as an unofficial member of the family. As the daughter of a slave, she was legally also a slave, therefore her uncle, who was also Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, made sure that she was listed in his will as a free person.

Dido was raised with her white cousin Elizabeth, who Mansfield and his wife had also adopted. She wasn’t allowed to dine with her family but did take coffee with them afterwards. Thomas Hutchinson, an American who visited the family estate in 1779 wrote: ‘A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other… She is a sort of Superintendent over the dairy, poultry yard, etc, which we visited. And she was called upon by my Lord [Mansfield] every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.’ Dido was given an allowance which she earned by overseeing the household’s dairy and poultry – tasks thought suitable for a gentlewoman.

A 1779 painting shows her with her cousin at the family estate.  The body language here is interesting as Elizabeth seems to be pushing Dido away whilst remaining attached to her, experiencing a mixture of shame, desire and perhaps, dutiful guilt. This picture paradigmatically represents the projection of unwanted attributes from the pure white girl to the mixed-race Other.  Yet, while playing on Orientalist tropes, it also portrays Dido as a lady and a symbol of ideal femininity. And, she gazes directly at the spectator, a rare feat for a non-white character in any painting of this time, particularly if female.

In the film, Dido’s liminality is highlighted when she spends time studying the paintings in her home, and realises that the black characters, if present, are always on the margins looking in, serving their masters, looking up to them. She is not represented in these paintings, and neither is a sense of the full humanity of the mixed/black individual. Indeed, they are a visual representation of the ideologies which dehumanised non-white subjects, and they serve as a reminder of her confusing position between the binaries of black and white.

Like Alex Haley’s Queen, the film focuses on her childhood relationship with her white counterpart. Yet unlike Queen, where the white step-sister becomes conditioned by social expectations and rejects her mixed sister, Elizabeth and Dido retain a strong friendship into adulthood. Elizabeth even admits that she envies her; while she, like Cathy, has to marry in order to have an income, Dido’s inheritance ensures that she is wealthy in her own right and is free to choose when she will marry and to whom. Despite obvious racial limitations on this freedom, Dido does become engaged to Lord Ashford, only to give him up when she falls in love with a working-class trainee lawyer and abolitionist, John Davinier. In reality Davinier was a gentleman’s servant, so it is possible that this inter-class romance may have been a love match against her family’s wishes. Christine Kenyon-Jones (2010) points out that Jane Austen knew the Mansfields through Elizabeth, and that in her unfinished book Sanditon, there is a rich mixed-race heiress, Miss Lambe, who is considered a good marriage prospect.

As Dido becomes politicised and learns more about the 1783 Zong case – where a ship’s captain tried to claim compensation for slaves which he had ordered to be thrown overboard – she becomes more estranged from her family, representors of the class who have profited most from this trade. This is perhaps what draws her to John, as well as the excitement of sneaking off in the dark and visiting him in strange parts of the city. She challenges her uncle – the judge on the Zong case – insisting that he take a moral rather than purely capitalist approach, and encouraging him to judge the case as one of murder, as indeed the abolitionist Granville Sharpe did. The film has been criticised for its treatment of this case, as well as its focus on Englishmen as abolitionist sympathisers rather than slavers. In the trial scenes, Judge Mansfield describes slavery as ‘odious’, appearing to take an anti-slavery position, yet the words are actually taken from the transcript of the earlier Somersett case – where Mansfield ruled that a slave in Britain could not be forced to go back to slavery in America. In terms of the Zong case, Kehinde Andrews writes: ‘the ruling was not anti-slavery because it sided with the insurers who were an absolutely essential part of the trade. To rule in favor of the ship captain may actually have been a stronger blow for abolition because if his actions were deemed legal, it would have been much harder to secure insurance for voyages. In fact, the case was actually an appeal by the insurers after an earlier ruling in the favor of the captain, for this very reason’ (Krikler, 2007). Rupprecht (2007) explains how the case at the time was not a major event, going almost unreported in the press. The horror of this mass murder was later made public by the abolition movement, as an unrefutable example of the barbarity of human trafficking. She explains that “the narrative helped to shape the archive of abolitionism, and thus it became iconic within the cultural memory of slavery” (p. 330). Mansfield never formally ruled in favor of the insurers, the case ended when he ordered another hearing as there was sufficient evidence to cast doubt on the claim, but the hearing apparently never took place (Krikler, 2007).

Trading in slaves was not abolished by the British government until 1808. The royal navy was then sent to patrol the coast of West Africa in order to suppress the trade, but slavery itself was not outlawed by Britain until 1833. While Andrews criticises the film for treating slavery as something alien to national history, it is important to note that the film does centralise the daughter of a slave, who advises her uncle on the case, and becomes an abolitionist.

Belle’s black British director Amma Asante noted that her interest in the narrative derived from her own experience as a bicultural person, which explains the centrality of cross-cultural dynamics. Here they are envisaged as liberating, while Wuthering Heights’s narrative focuses on the exploitative relationship between the global North and South. Yet the mixed-race leads of Belle and Wuthering Heights are similar in that they are both products of their society and succeed within its parameters despite their Otherness. They are signifiers of a historical and contemporary bi-cultural Britain and reposition multiculturalism as not only urban but rural, as such forming a challenge to prevailing discourses regarding British heritage and national identity. As Caroline Bressay argues “black histories of England are intimately connected to the rural… unnamed servants and enslaved men, women and children . . . lived and worked on the country estates of the lords, ladies and gentlemen who owned them” (386). Yet these films are exceptions in visualising this reality, whether in the historical or contemporary context.

Both films could be and have been read as flawed in their focus on the individual (although this prioritisation of the private and psychological over the public and socio-political is a convention of the melodrama genre). They’ve been criticised for white-centric casts, imperial nostalgia and a post-racial collapsing of the discourses of class, gender and race. Yet Wuthering Heights is an important exploration of slavery from within and Belle is an important examination of the legacy of slavery. Both films deal with the existence of slavery on British soil, emphasising its local as well as global presence. Both films also deal with the dynamics of transracial adoption and interracial love. Here the broader issues faced by mixed people then and now are explored within the intimate setting of the family, which, particularly in Belle, is not just a metaphor for changes in social practice but in state law.

The so-called ‘post-racial’ moment has been accompanied by a renewed focus on slavery in Western cinema. From Anglo-American films such as 12 Years a Slave, Amazing Grace, Lincoln and Django Unchained to France’s Big City and Case départ, these films question the discourses of Western ‘values’ so commonly promoted in contemporary anti-immigration narratives by drawing on histories of brutality which continue to impact people around the world. Rather than cover over the past to focus on fantasies of racial harmony, the work of Asante and Arnold attempts to force that which was hidden out into the open and to re-examine uncomfortable cultural memories, revealing the trauma underlying the brilliance of the imperial period. These films explore culpability and the national past, through the in-betweenness of their protagonists. As such, they call into question dominant political narratives and, through images which evoke both the past and the present, question the possibility for any society still consumed by racial politics, to be labelled ‘post-race’.   

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