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The Film “Belle” Highlights Black Life in 18th Century England

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Amma Asante at the premiere of "Belle" in New York

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Ever since I saw the previews for Amma Asante’s film Belle in the fall of 2013, I was both intrigued and skeptical. Intrigued because as a scholar of African American literature, a researcher intensely interested in depictions of slavery, and a lover of Jane Austen and period pieces, this movie seemed right up my alley. Skeptical, because I wondered if the filmmakers would do the subject justice.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised at Belle. Although at times I felt like the film overly catered to the sentimental (screenwriter Misan Sagay admits she had always wanted to write a “Jane Austen slavery drama”), I thought the film was well done and worth seeing.

Belle tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by the talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of an enslaved Black woman named Maria Belle and white British aristocrat, John Lindsay. Dido spends much of her life with her white family, occupying a strange and confusing (for her) liminal status, in which she is very much an insider, but also very much an outsider. Much of the film is preoccupied with marriage, as her cousin Elizabeth is tasked with finding a wealthy suitor to take care of her, a guarantee of security for a woman with little dowry like herself. Dido, on the other hand, has a significant inheritance from her dead father, but the fact of her blackness leaves her with little to no choice of acceptable suitors. The film does a good job of linking the limitations of race, class, and gender for women during this time, reflecting the sentiments of early feminist thinkers of the day, even if the “marriage is like slavery” sentiment collapses some of the experience of actual slavery. Women’s friendship, as depicted through the relationship of cousins Elizabeth and Dido, was particularly interesting. And the story has a romantic subplot worthy of any Jane Austen tale, in which our heroine gets the dashing gentleman—who has good politics, of course—in the end. 

Slavery, and the slave trade more specifically, is also very important to the film. Belle spends a lot of time focusing on the role of the Zong massacre case and Dido’s role in influencing her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Director Amma Asante notes that part of her involvement with the film is connected to her fascination with the famous 1779 painting of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray, a painting that differed from so many depictions of Blacks in European art. Asante noted that in most of the art she saw Blacks were depicted as an “accessory, a pet, there to express the status of the main protagonist. They were always lower down, never looking at the painter — they’d be reaching up to draw your eye to that person. It was like how people were painted with their hunting dogs, their horses, that kind of thing.” However, in the painting of the two women Asante notes that, “Immediately I was able to see this painting of Dido and Elizabeth was different. Dido is higher, she’s looking out directly, Elizabeth’s hand is touching Dido, guiding your eye to Dido…In creating the film, what I wanted to do was bring you my journey, so you understand why the painting is unique.” The film is definitely Dido’s story, guiding the audience to view her and focus in on her unique world.

The film takes quite a few liberties with the facts of Dido Belle’s life. While it is true that some decisions had less to do with missing history and more to do with making a compelling narrative, there is a lot we don't know about Dido Belle.  USA Today reports that, “Dido was born in 1761, probably in the British West Indies, and was taken to England at age 6. She was named for her mother, Maria Belle, for the earl's first wife, Elizabeth, and for Dido the Queen of Carthage…She was educated, literate, and clever enough to serve as her great-uncle's legal secretary. Mansfield mentions her lovingly in his diaries and left her money in his will along with a clear statement about her status. ‘I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom.’ She was treated as an equal member of the family with one exception: She could not join them at dinner when guests were present.” She went on to marry John Davinier, depicted a dashing young law student in the film but who was a valet in real life, and had children. She died at age 43. Her last known relative, who incidentally identified as a white South African, died in 1975. 

Interestingly, new research suggests that Dido Belle may have relatives in Pensacola, Florida. The research notes that Belle’s mother Maria did not die, as the film suggests, but was settled in Pensacola by Belle’s own father. Indeed, I wished that the film spent a bit more time on Maria Belle, rather than killing her off.

I would recommend Belle to anyone interested in compelling depictions of Black life, women’s friendship, and slavery. The film stands with recent depictions of Black life in the West, such as 12 Years a Slave, that, taken together, provide fascinating and thought provoking evidence of the richness of Black people’s experience throughout the African diaspora. And I can only hope that more film depictions of Black life--and not just the extraordinary stories of individuals like Solomon Northup and Dido Belle--make it to the big screen.

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