In 2013, two award-winning films highlighted the black historical experience in America. Chiwetel Ejiofor played Solomon Northup, a free man from upstate New York who is sold into slavery, in the Oscar award winning 12 Years a Slave. In director Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who served as a butler in the White House over the course of eight presidential terms.
And in 2014, Amma Asante’s Belle movie tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral and an African slave woman. But rather than being brought up as a second-class citizen in England, her childless aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield, raised her as a legitimate child and an aristocrat.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw brings the role of Dido Elizabeth Belle to the screen in a film that highlights race and class issues in Georgian England, and theorizes that Belle may have inspired Lord Mansfield’s opposition to slavery. If you are looking for a good research paper topic in film studies or focusing on race relations, consider looking at the Belle movie.
Dido Elizabeth Belle
There is only one graphic representation of Dido Elizabeth Belle: a portrait of her alongside her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, who was also raised by Lord and Lady Mansfield. That Johann Zoffany portrait, done circa 1799, was the inspiration for filmmakers, including director Amma Asante, to tackle Belle’s story. “Belle was brought up in the aristocratic surroundings of Kenwood House in London,” explained Frank Urquhart, on April 13, 2014, in “Portrait of woman who inspired ‘Belle’ to be shown,” published in The Scotsman.
After the death of Belle’s mother, Maria Belle, who was an enslaved African, her father, Sir John Lindsay, brought her to live with Lord and Lady Mansfield. Though little of her history is documented—giving the filmmakers leeway in describing Belle’s role in historical events—Lord Mansfield “played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery” in England, according to Urquhart.
He was Lord Chief Justice, and presided over a case in which 142 African slaves were killed and thrown overboard so that their owners could cash in on their insurance policies for “damaged cargo.” Mansfield ruled against them, and made definitive statements about the evils of slavery during the case.
In the film, Belle and her future husband, John Davinier, who works with Lord Mansfield studying law, are instrumental in convincing Lord Mansfield to make that crucial judgment. The film also features class distinctions between Belle and Murray, but not in the way audiences might expect: Murray is penniless and must marry well, but Belle inherits her father’s fortune and finds herself independent in a time when most women of color in England were not.
According to historical records, upon Lord Mansfield’s death, his will carefully detailed Belle’s status as a free woman. Belle did indeed marry Davinier, and the couple had three children. Belle died in 1804.
Race relations in film
In “Born a Slave, Brought Up a Lady” in the London Evening Standard, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave commented on the “reflex fear” that exists in Britain about acknowledging England’s role in the slave trade. “People have a fear of questioning societies to which they owe their whole system of reality … not just in the States, wherever countries still have benefits of that today … I want [the history of slavery] taught in every school, because ultimately it speaks to human respect, and what happens when there are prejudices and where that has led the human race in our history. And could again, very easily.”
While 12 Years a Slave tackled the topic of slavery head on, Belle‘s approach is a little more subtle (and family friendly; it’s earned a PG rating). Neela Debnath of the London Independent blog, in her post “The trailer for ‘Belle’: A period drama with substance and romance?” called the film “a period drama that takes the romance of Pride and Prejudice and uses it to address issues of class, race and slavery in 18th century England.”
She suggested that this softer approach to talking about slavery might make the film appealing to a more general audience, particularly given the world-wide success of the television show Downtown Abbey.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw has expressed pleasure at being offered a role other than a slave in a period historical drama, and has mentioned her previous jealousy of friends cast in Jane Austen adaptations. In the London Evening Standard, she explained, “Speaking as a mixed race woman in 2013, there aren’t many historical stories about people like me. When people think of ‘dual heritage,’ they think it’s a modern concept, but it’s not. I wanted to do justice to Dido.”
Will you go see the Belle movie in the theaters? Tell us in the comments.