by Addison Cooper, LCSW
If you live near any independent theaters, you might have a chance to catch a very thoughtful exploration of racism, romantic love, adoptive parental love, and the interplay among all three of them. Fox Searchlight’s film Belle recently had its mainstream release in the United States.
Set in 1769 England, the film looks in on Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice and highest judge in all of England, who must rule on a case that threatens to disrupt the nation’s vast slave-based economy. Bound by the codes of the aristocracy, Lord Mansfield is also raising two of his nieces, Elizabeth and Dido. Dido’s inclusion in his household has caused a scandal, because Dido is the mixed-race daughter of Mansfield’s nephew and a slave. All of England waits as Mansfield prepares to rule on what is legal and on what is right.
Some in Lord Mansfield’s household initially object to taking in Dido, but Lord Mansfield himself accepts her as family. Later in life, he confesses to his wife that he loves Dido “as though she was created of you and me.”
There’s a lot that I enjoyed about this film as a social worker, including the following three things:
1. Lord Mansfield is committed to doing what’s right, regardless of whether it is popular or advantageous.
Two characters are noted for their desire to not only enforce policy, but to create policy. As social workers, we are often in positions of authority (or at least influence), and we may find ourselves with similar desires. In the context of our profession, we are governed by the laws of the land, the ethical codes of our associations, the regulations of our contracts, and the policies of our agencies, but we are not bound to treat them with unquestioning awe. We are not only “followers” of codes; ideally, we are also questioners, analyzers, and shapers of the codes. At one point, Mansfield decrees that something is “not legal, neither is it right.” May our work result in increasing agreement between “legal” and “right.”
2. Dido is unapologetic about her heritage.
One young man takes a fancy to her, saying that he can forgive her bloodline. Dido ultimately rejects him, saying that she wants a husband who does not see forgiveness of her heritage as necessary. She does not apologize for her race, heritage, or paternal history. One of the things I appreciate about social work is its desire to respect every individual and to celebrate rather than tolerate the traits, beliefs, and characteristics that make us unique.
3. Belle captures the inner thoughts and passions of several characters as they wrestle with major ethical and societal issues.
Part of what drew me to social work is a general affinity for other people, and part of that (at least for me) is a desire to understand folks. In Belle, one character notes that people often try to disregard each other. It made me think—sometimes, people are quick to differentiate and exclude each other. Whether the divide is along religious lines, racial lines, identity lines, or professional/educational lines, we often try to find the categories where we fit, and we differentiate ourselves from those who don’t fit. I can’t help feeling we lose something by this proclivity toward exclusion, and Belle challenges it. As social workers, we can challenge it, too. The first step toward challenging it is an honest season of self-exploration. Who do I exclude? How do I justify it? What do others lose by my disregard of them? What am I losing?
Belle is a thoughtful, powerful, challenging, and beautiful film. As you watch it, think about why you became a social worker, and ask yourself two questions: In five years, what change do I hope to have accomplished in my community? and What change do I need to accomplish in myself to make the macro-level change flow from a more genuine place?
See the change that needs to happen; then be the change that needs to happen.
Addison Cooper is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in California and Missouri. He reviews films and writes movie discussion guides for foster and adoptive families at Adoption at the Movies (www.adoptionlcsw.com), and is a supervisor at a foster care and adoption agency in Southern California. His articles on adoption and film have also appeared in Adoptive Families and Foster Focus magazines. Find him on Twitter @AddisonCooper.