Monday, May 11, 2015

"Belle"

Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her sister-cousin exhibited at the Scone Palace in Scotland
In addition to blogging for Rag looms & Heirlooms, I write reviews of inspiring, though provoking films for: reelinspiration.blogspot.com. I thought you might appreciate my review of, "Belle" since it is inspired by a historical event. Enjoy!

In 1761, Dido Elizabeth Belle was born the daughter of a British slave and Captain Sir John Lindsay.  She was raised by aristocrat grandparents with the privileges afforded one of noble blood. What makes this story so incredible is that her beloved grandfather was the justice of the appeals court that officiated an insurance dispute by the captain of the slave ship Zong  - a case that may have led to the emaciation of British slaves.

Writer/Director Amma Asante makes Dido’s story acceptable to mainstream audiences by dressing it up as a lavish historical costume drama, embroidered with romance, its delicate fabric interwoven with threads of relevant themes.

When Belle’s sister-cousin comes out in society, her grandparents entertain suitors.  Dido (Gugu Mabatha-Raw) is prohibited from dining with the rest of the family due to her position in society as a black woman. For the first time, Belle questions her position in society. She asks her Papa (Tom Wilkinson), “How can I be too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with my family?”  He explains that it is the nature of order. There is an interesting dichotomy here.  Belle recognizes the injustice of that rule. But that very evening, she admonishes the vicar’s son John for breaking social etiquette by speaking directly to her - the lady of the house - when he is of a lower social standing.  Formed by her privileged upbringing, Belle upholds the very social hierarchy that suppresses her.

The vicar’s son John (Sam Reid) arrives to study law under her grandfather, the justice of the appeal court.  Dido overhears a case that her Papa is trying in which a slave ship captain is suing the insurance company for the cost of the slaves that he threw overboard to reserve water for himself and the crew.  This lights a fire in Dido to learn more about the injustices of her people.  Dido is inspired by the law student as he challenges their social system by standing up for the drowned slaves.

To shelter Dido, her grandfather forbids John from speaking to her. He encourages her to marry a gentleman for his family name to preserve her rank. This is another interesting dichotomy, as the judge is expected to rule on the merits of the case on the basis that the slaves are property or cargo, while he fights to maintain his beloved Dido’s place in society. Meanwhile, Dido’s sister-cousin is having difficulty securing a husband because she didn't inherit her father’s fortune. She realizes that ladies aren't allowed to work to earn money, nor can they inherit it if they have a brother. So essentially they are property. Everyone in this society is enslaved by the confines of their class.

While “Belle” is set in 18th century Britain, it shines a light on important issues of our time. There are parallels between Britain’s class system and our own. In America, class is distinguished by the distribution of wealth. There is a great divide when CEOs are paid $10,000 an hour, yet refuse to pay workers a living wage of $10. While Britain’s colonial economy relied on the slave trade, our market-based economy relies on paying slave wages. The lower class competes for poverty wages because the other jobs have been sent overseas where we exploit starving children and the destitute.  Right here in America, those who harvest our food work brutal 13 hour days on an empty stomach. That brings up the question: Do we really have to exploit desperate people to show a profit?  Are we enslaved by a system that values profit over human life?

When I post a meme on Facebook to create awareness and inspire action, inevitably a “well-meaning” friend will leave a comment that there is nothing we can do, that it has always been that way. Their comments not only deflate the cause, but make me feel hopeless and powerless. That is one of the reasons I love the movie “Belle;” It inspires hope with its theme, “What is right can never be impossible.”  The movie (and history) proves this thesis. In the 18th century,  Britain’s economy was based on the slave trade.  While we had to fight a war to end slavery, Britain passed a law to abolish it. And their economy didn't come crashing down.

What was the driving force? Amma Asante's thesis is that it is was love. Belle assures her grandfather that he is brave. When he argues that there are rules in place that dictate how we live, she counters with, “You break every rule when it matters enough, Papa.  I am the proof of that.”

Amma Asante was empowered by her (sur)name sake, the Ghanaian warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa, to overcome great obstacles to get, “Belle” to the screen.  This low budget costume drama became a surprise hit grossing $104,493 on opening weekend.

“Belle” is proof that, “What is right can never be impossible.” 

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mothers Day Gifts

On this mother’s day, I feel blessed to have worked with my mom on her love project honoring her mother, “Model T Biscuits.” You can just feel the love as you read about their cross country trip to find a little farm of their own.  


As I look back, it is really a miracle that I became a writer. When I was in kindergarten, I was so shy that I couldn't even raise my hand to go to the bathroom.  I had great difficulty learning my ABC’s. So they held me back another year. Yes, I flunked Kindergarten.  I was put in a special class for students with learning disabilities. I remember being taught to tell my right hand from my left by holding up the hand I used to salute the flag.  In second grade, I struggled to learn to read by memorizing words, so I doodled on the handouts instead. The teacher complained that I was in my own dream world, put me down another grade and suggested that I be put on drugs. But my mom never gave up on me. She hired a nice young woman to write down my stories while I illustrated them (so I could see the connection between my imagination and words.) My mom was so ahead of her time.  I’m still proud of the resulting picture books, “The Stinky Skunk” and “The Roadwalker.”

The thing I love most about my mom is how she always encouraged us kids to develop our talents. When I was little I spent all my time drawing people.  Despite our limited income, mom always made sure I had art supplies. (Seems like every birthday I got art sets.)  Somehow she convinced a local artist, Jan, to give me free art lessons.  (Jan taught me a trick for drawing faces... Draw an oval with a curved line half way down it. That's where you put the eyes.) She had been commissioned to paint a portrait of our local celebrities Roy Rogers and Dale Evans for their museum. Inspired by her painting, I sketched a picture of them too. I remember mom driving me to Victorville and waiting outside the bowling alley for Roy Rogers so I could give him my little picture. He just looked at it and walked away.

Mom inspired me every day with her passion and dedication to her own writing.  On our birthdays, she brought cupcakes to school and read her story picture books to the class. One year she read a story about a little Mexican boy and brought a lopsided homemade piƱata. I loved it! 


When my passion shifted to theater, mom drove me to the next town over to perform in Community Theater. I checked out plays and musical records from the library.  I listened to show tunes on my little record player and belted out the songs. I believe it was that love of plays that helped me to finally overcome my struggle with reading. I started writing show tunes and musicals.  My most cherished memory of my mom is climbing into her bed and singing her my latest creation. Of course, she thought they all were brilliant. On the last day of school before going off to college, I somehow found the courage to sing one of those songs, “At Last” to my choir teacher. He was inspired to write an accompaniment to it right there in the practice room while the rest of the class enjoyed their Christmas party.

Whenever I came home from college, I crawled into bed and sang mom my latest songs. After learning to critique in grad school, we would sprawl out on the couch as I critiqued her latest children’s book. One of those books was, “Model T Biscuits” which I eventually adapted into a screenplay.
directing a scene from "Model T Biscuits"
Mom and I have shared many priceless memories. We attended the Burbank Children's Film Festival and watched as Dee Wallace's acting students performed a stage reading of, “Model T Biscuits.” During the awards dinner, mom was so nervous that her stomach was gurgling. She kept escaping into the bathroom. During one of those visits, she ran into Shelly Long ( from Cheers)! She babbled something about how nervous she was. Shelly admitted that she was nervous too and gave my mom a comforting hug.

Finally, Dee Wallace (the mom from E.T.) announced that we had won the award for best short screenplay. Mom nervously uttered a speech about how her mother had inspired, “Model T Biscuits” with her sisu (Finnish for guts and determination.)  I am so grateful that my mom always showed sisu when it came to encouraging us kids.  That is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.