Before making the film Belle, screenwriter Misan Sagay first saw the painting—an 18th-century portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray with Dido Elizabeth Belle alongside her—and noticed a striking difference from other paintings of the era depicting black subjects. In this painting, the woman of color, Belle, is positioned somewhat as an equal, not bowed or stooping or looking reverentially upward at the white subject. It’s a motif that is echoed throughout Belle, starring the impressive Gugu Mbatha-Raw and directed by Amma Asante: a rare cinematic moment of black women driving a film as director, screenwriter and star.
And these women-centered touches do make a difference. The painting shows the woman of color dressed in an “exotic” turban (a common trope signifying non-European foreignness), carrying tropical fruit (in contrast to the young white lady holding a book to signal her civilized literacy) and mysteriously touching her cheek. (Is she reminding the painter that she is “of color” or “black” and, therefore, imagines herself not worthy of being portrayed? Or is she seemingly self-conscious of that color that makes her such an exotic in the Georgian aristocratic family in which she was raised?) However, the film turns those racial signifiers on their heads while injecting gender politics, class issues and the transatlantic slave trade to retell and reposition the titular character of Belle from the margins of history to the center of her own costume-drama romance. (And those costumes, designed by Anushia Nieradzik, definitely pop off the screen.)
The story begins with Belle’s British father, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), walking through the slums of a city (London or Liverpool?) to reclaim the mixed-race child he had with her slave mother, Maria Belle, who is killed off before we can meet her. While the backstory of Dido’s mother would have been intriguing, her absence casts a long shadow on her daughter, who is thrust into the privileged surroundings of Kenwood, where she is to be raised by her great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and his wife (Emily Watson).
The real Lord Mansfield served as chief justice in England, presiding over two court cases relating to slavery: the Sommerset case of 1772 (in which he ruled that slaves could not be sold once they resided in England) and the Zong Massacre case of 1783, dramatized in the film. It concerned an insurance fraud case that found slavers of the Zong slave ship attempting to collect money on the dead “cargo” they had cast overboard while en route to Jamaica. Both cases are historically viewed as laying the groundwork for the abolitionist movement, which eventually led to the ban on the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, three years after the real Dido Elizabeth Belle had died.
Speaking of the real Belle, Lord Mansfield ensured that she received a pension, and he reiterated her free status in his will. Such recordings may indicate not only his own personal feelings toward her—feelings that his political colleagues worried would cloud his judgement when it came to his famous rulings—but also the need to protect people of color. Belle lived at a time when men had complete control over the lives of women and could, if they were so inclined, return Belle to the slave status of her mother. Which makes this retelling of her story, even from a 21st-century perspective, quite bold and subversive.
Dido Elizabeth Belle is no tragic mulatto. Nor does she need a “white savior,” though one could easily see how her fate depended on the benevolence of first her father, then her uncle and later her husband John Davinier (Sam Reid), a fascinating character who helps awaken Belle to political consciousness as well as to love. The real Davinier was a French valet working at Kenwood, but in the film he is a clergyman’s son with political ambitions to become a lawyer, thus working as Lord Mansfield’s protege.
Although Belle is perceived as being an inevitable spinster (who will marry her since her coloring supposedly rules her out of the dating game?), her inheritance at the death of her father raises her status even above her cousin, Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). The film’s villain, James Ashford (Tom Felton), notes that one is “exotic fruit sampled in the cotton fields of the Indies while the other is an English rose that decorates one’s house.” However, both Belle and Lady Elizabeth navigate these racialized gender roles in a fascinating display of rivalry tempered by sisterly solidarity. This film could have easily descended into the black-woman-white-woman opposition mindset that white supremacist patriarchy has set out for them, but here is where the story is told differently. Threatened by these gender, race and class rules, Belle and Elizabeth instead form a bond that is tested by rivalry but ultimately sealed in sisterhood.
In one poignant scene, Dido struggles to comb her own hair until a black servant, Mabel (Bethan Mary-James), gives her an important lesson in self-care—a lesson Mabel “learned from her mum.” As Belle, Mabel and Elizabeth watch this hair-combing ritual in a mirror, the scene nicely contrasts with an earlier one that depicted Belle gazing at herself, then clawing at her skin in apparent self-hate. The self-care lesson is a critical moment of revising the “tragic mulatto” story, as Belle not only begins to reevaluate herself but, once she learns about the Zong case that her uncle presides over, comes to political awakening and race consciousness.
But this is more than a history lesson. This is a romance, and most importantly a black feminist romance, in which Dido is not only at the center of this story but radically positioned as the person who influences large political and legal decisions because of her relationship with Lord Mansfield. Moreover, she forges solidarity with the women around her and questions the intersections of race, class and gender in her own situation. As she tells John Davinier, seeking marriage as a financially independent free black woman is akin to “a Free Negro who begs for a master.”
Of course, the valiant Davinier tells her she can “marry her equal” to avoid this inequality. In this black feminist romance, a mixed-race woman of the aristocracy is given choices in an interracial match. She can choose a well-to-do “fetishist” (James Norton), who considers the “white” part of her far more important than the “black” part, or she can choose the poorer “anti-racist ally” who proclaims his undying love for her while also assuming her black mother “must have been as beautiful” as she.
This is a feel-good story, so it’s obvious the choice she will make, even at a time when so many women who looked like her did not have this luxury.
Taken as a political romance, Belle is definitely a triumphant feminist tale and the kind we could only get when black women are at the helm, even in 2014. As it slowly rolls out in theaters and then becomes available for home viewing, this is one film not to miss.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, c. 1778, attributed to Johann Zofanny, from Wikimedia Commons
Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, and a frequent contributor to Ms.