In giving top billing to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the film Belle makes a real contribution to raising awareness of the mixed-race experience, Ashley Clark reports in this article for London’s Guardian.
My heart leaps whenever I see the poster for Amma Asante‘s new film, Belle, high up on billboards around town. The poised, sincere face of its lead actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (a Brit of black South African and white English extraction), towers above an otherwise white cast including Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, and ex-Harry Potter villain Tom Felton.
Why? As a mixed-race Brit myself – white and black Caribbean, as I’ve been checking in the relevant boxes for some years now – it’s always been significant to me to see someone who looks like they could be a close relative in the foreground rather than the background. The film’s protagonist, Dido Elizabeth Belle, as you might now know, is based on an actual 18th-century mixed-race woman of white British and black African heritage who was raised as an aristocrat.
The issues still seem relevant now: how does a mixed-race person navigate the spaces between cultures and the isolation that sometimes ensue? Film and television that genuinely engages with the mixed-race British experience is rare, so it’s always thrilling when it happens in mainstream entertainment. Mixed-race visibility is not new, particularly in professional sports, but the wonderful sight of Jessica Ennis on the medal podium is not the same as experiencing the layered complexity of a multifaceted story.
As the musician and increasingly impressive public intellectual Questlove recently wrote: “In the simplest terms, art humanises. It opens the circuit of empathy. And once that process happens, it’s that much harder to think of people as part of a policy or a statistic.”
In 2012, British Future published a glowing report, The Melting Pot Generation: How Britain Became More Relaxed on Race. It noted: “The Jessica Ennis generation can stake a strong claim to have won the race against prejudice”, alongside figures showing that only 15% of the public were opposed to marriages across ethnic lines, down from 50% when my parents met in the mid-1980s.
It’s clear that things have improved. However, while one can celebrate the findings – and happily feel that acceptance of mixed relationships has increased – one must also wonder how this all squares with last month’s revelations in the British Social Attitudes survey that found that the proportion of people in the UK who say they are racially prejudiced has risen since 2001.
As a film critic by trade, there are some things about myself that I rarely include in my contributions to the public conversation. I won a bursary to attend a predominantly white private school and it was here that I first started to consider seriously issues of race, privilege, the ways that I did or didn’t fit in, or whether I even had to try to fit in. (I eventually decided I didn’t, probably around the same time I decided Scritti Politti were my favourite band and started hawking homemade “best of the 80s” cassettes to my teachers.)
At the age of 13, I was thrilled to see the mixed-race experience represented in the classroom for the first time when we read John Agard’s witty, acrid poem Half Caste (Wha yu mean/ when yu say half-caste/ yu mean when Picasso/ mix red an green/ is a half-caste canvas?), a takedown of the now horribly out-of-date, and ever-repellent, term. Jamaican patois was familiar to me from my regular trips to the barber with my Tooting-born dad. My quietly emotional reaction to Agard’s poem was automatically filtered from most of my classmates but I was fortunate to have a best friend with whom I shared a similar background (his mother’s white, his father Sudanese) and could privately discuss race, not to mention white institutional cluelessness about such matters.
It’s tempting to say that as mixed-race people we are able to forge our own distinct identities, that mixed-race people don’t face the stereotypes that other minority groups do. However, this assumption should be treated with caution: people such as myself who are “black mixed” versus people who are “non-black mixed” can have a different experience.
The sociologist Emma Dabiri convincingly argues that “black-mixed people can be racialised as black, whereas non-black-mixed people are able to inhabit a more ambiguous exotic space”. This, says Dabiri, puts paid to the myth that all mixed-race groups can be packaged together – as the media often attempt to do – as one separate, monolithic community: a tidy narrative of progress.
For example, I was being aggressively racialised as black when I was abused by a group of drunken football fans in the bar of the team I support, or whenever I’ve been stopped and searched by police. Mark Duggan was racialised as black in death by the media.
When England footballer Ashley Cole gets monkey chants from the terraces, his (half) whiteness is the last thing on the minds of his abusers. And when President Barack Obama was called upon to comment on the acquittal of George Zimmerman – who shot to death the 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin – the American public, conditioned by the “one drop” theory of black identification, was not thinking about his half-white heritage.
All of this serves to illustrate that the mixed-race experience is unique among minority groups because it is highly individualised, nationally and globally; there is very little in the way of a grand, unifying narrative or shared history.
That is precisely why compassionate and detailed individual narratives are so vital.
For the original report go to http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/08/belle-film-proud-to-be-mixed-race