While we were visiting Ohio, we went to see two movies with my sister- and brother-in-law Ann and Ken. Ann picked the movies. Ann likes highbrow movies and lowbrow movies, but not middlebrow movies. She’ll watch an arthouse movie, and that was one of the ones we picked. She’ll also watch a dumb comedy, and that was the other movie we picked.
Belle is set in the 18th Century in England. It’s about a mixed-race woman with a black African mother and white English Naval officer for a father. The woman, whose name was Dido, was raised as an English aristocrat. Her uncle and foster father was the highest judge in England, and ruled on a case that significantly weakened the English slave trade of the era.
Pretty good movie, although a bit predictable. Dido’s foster father’s law clerk is handsome and passionately principled and is the only man Dido meets who is a match for her intellect (other than her foster father). The clerk is also the only man who considers her mixed-race heritage to be nothing to be ashamed of. They hate each other at first. Will they fall in love by the end of the movie?
After the movie, I enjoyed leafing through Wikipedia to learn the real-life history behind it. The main characters of the movie did exist, more-or-less as portrayed in the movie, although the movie played fast and loose with historical facts. Which is fine — the purpose of the movie is not to be a history book.
Dido Elizabeth Belle died in her 40s in real life. She lived most of her life on her foster father’s estate, and managed the dairy and poultry yards, helping him out with his correspondence. Those were positions of great responsibility. We don’t know a lot about her life, but evidence suggests she was treated as a family member rather than a servant.
Dido’s foster father, William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, was an important figure in English history. He advanced commercial law in ways that helped established Britain as a leader in world commerce. He actually ruled on two slave cases; the movie conflates them both into one. He didn’t end slave trafficking, but he took a big step in that direction.
The second movie was 22 Jump Street, featuring muscular Channing Tatum, who took off his shirt a lot, and chubby Jonah Hill, who left his shirt on. 22 Jump Street was a broad, dumb comedy, and I enjoyed it a good deal.
Here’s one of my favorite stories about Roger Ebert: A reader called him on giving a dumb fraternity comedy a higher rating than a fine French art movie. The way I heard the story, Ebert paused in thought after being challenged, then said he stood by his rating. Ebert loved all genres of movies and (he said) the dumb fraternity comedy was better as a dumb frat-com then French art film was as a French art film.
In that spirit, I give 22 Jump Street a higher rating than Belle. Jump Street was a better dumb comedy than Belle was as a political historical drama. Belle was mostly predictable. You could tell what every character was going to do as soon as they came onscreen. 22 Jump Street is also predictable, but that’s not a flaw in a dumb comedy. The jokes are broad and coarse — and funny.
The casting was oddly and refreshingly multicultural and diverse. In a movie that sets its sights as low as this one, I wouldn’t have even noticed if they went with an all-white cast. But instead we’ve got a racially diverse cast. Likewise, the movie is filled with gay jokes, but they are all good-natured. I can only assume this is due to the zeitgeist.
What I mean to say is this: Stephen King has noted that monster movies of the 1950s featured creatures created by nuclear explosions. This is not because the makers of low-budget monster movies wanted to make a statement about the dangers of nuclear weapons. It’s just that nuclear anxiety was in the air — it was part of the zeitgesit — so if you were looking to make a movie about a giant lizard that destroyed a city, and you needed a reason why this giant lizard existed, well, why not just handwave about nuclear explosion and move on?
Similarly, I don’t think the makers of 22 Jump Street wanted to make a movie celebrating ethnic diversity. But we live in a diverse world, and when they were looking for talented comedy actors of course they’d have no reason to overlook black and mixed-race actors. Why should they? In some ways, a movie like this is more refreshing than one that consciously tries to make a point about racial equality like, for example, Belle.