Last year, 12 Years a Slave, based on a true story, directed by a black Englishman took an unrelenting look at slavery in the American South. This year, a black Englishwoman (Amma Asante, of Ghananian descent) directs Belle, a true story about a biracial woman who lived as an aristocrat during the time of England’s leadership in the slave trade.
In 1769, in the West Indies, Captain John Lindsay (Andrew Goode in a short but crucial role), grieving for his dead slave mistress, Belle, takes his young daughter to England and puts her in the care of his uncle — Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who also happens to be Lord Chief Justice, the most important judge in the country. At first shocked (“she’s so black!”), the Lord and his kindly childless wife (a luminous Emily Watson), and her sister, spinster Lady Mary Murray (a memorable Penelope Wilton), take the child under their wings. She is called Dido (Gugu Mathba-Ra, born in England of South African roots) and becomes the constant companion to her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Canadian Sarah Gadon).
Dido is dressed, educated, and trained in the domestic arts that ladies of good breeding must have. In all respects she and Elizabeth are equal — except that when guests come to dinner at the manor house, Dido couldn’t join the family — she had to eat with the servants. Nevertheless, Lord Mansfield always reminds Dido, “you are loved” and he comes to admire her feisty spirit and keen intelligence.
A large oil painting, long lost to art historians, shows the young women in poses reflecting their equality, unlike other portraits of the time that showed blacks only in slave or servant positions. Finding this portrait at Scone Palace in Scotland intrigued Misan Sagay, a college student born in England of Nigerian roots. She became obsessed with telling the story of the women in the painting. The result is Belle, fictionalized in parts, but essentially true to Dido’s story.
Dido and Elizabeth wend their way to the time they must make the most important decisions of their lives — which suitors will they choose to marry. Proper marriages are crucial to their very survival because all methods of making their own living are closed to women like them. Nothing could be worse than to remain unmarried and forever be beholden to the kindness of their families, such as the pitiful Lady Mary. But the world outside their manicured estate rages in a historic and ugly struggle.
The ship named Zong was over packed with slaves, making many of them too sick to bring any profit when the ship landed in the slave markets. The ship’s crew decided to cut their losses — and threw 140 human beings, including women and babies, into the sea to drown. Later the ship’s owners made an insurance claim for the loss of their “cargo.” The insurance company refused to pay.
By the time the case reaches the high court of Lord Mansfied, it has become the rallying point for the entire abolitionist movement. In the film, young attorney John Davinier (hunky Australian Sam Reid) pleads with Lord Mansfield to decide in favor of the insurance company — in essence creating a huge blow to the slave trade.
The discovery of legal papers in Lord Mansfield’s desk jolts Dido out of her rarefied existence and forces her to face England’s ubiquitous racism. In an unforgettable scene, she claws at her dark skin, as if she could tear it off and emerge as pale and acceptable as her cousin Elizabeth.
Director Asante (with the help, by the way, of many other women filmmakers, including the composer, the editors, costumers, art and set decorators — perhaps the largest number of female crewmembers I’ve seen in end credits) has masterfully weaved a tale that sees both the beautiful surface and the ugly underbelly of English society at this time.
Though she will always remain an outsider in England, Dido is determined to honor her mother by making herself a happy life. One day, she wants to say, “I’ve been blessed with freedom two times over, as a Negro and as a woman.”