Mixed-race gentlewoman inspires anti-slavery politics in ‘Belle’
The history of slavery in the Americas did not begin and end with the American South. For centuries, the economy of the lucrative Caribbean sugar islands colonized by European powers depended on imported African slaves. Yet slavery was abolished in the British islands 30 years before the American Civil War—in the courts, not on the battlefield. One possible reason for that is explored in Belle, an engaging, handsomely mounted drawing room drama about a real-life young woman of color who may have had an impact on the legal campaign to end slavery in England.
Belle is the love child of two determined Anglo-African women filmmakers, scriptwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante, who labored for seven years to bring the story to the screen. Their subject is Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of an English sea captain and a slave. Liaisons between white men and slave women were not at all uncommon in the islands, producing generations of mixed-race children. But young Dido’s fate was not common: her father had her raised in gentility by his aristocratic uncle, Lord Mansfield—the Lord Chief Justice of England.
The film begins in 1769 with the child, Dido, arriving in England, and met dockside by the father she has never seen, Captain Sir John Lindsay. Matthew Goode brings his usual panache and conviction to his few brief minutes of screen time as Lindsay. Charmed by the shy young girl, yet obliged to soon depart again for his ship, he tells her, “Know that you are loved, just as I loved your mother.”
Less enthused are the uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkerson and Emily Watson), to whom the young captain delivers his daughter, with instructions to raise her as one of their own blood in his absence. They have no problem with Dido herself, who grows into a lovely young woman (played with grace and spirit by the beauteous Gugu Mbatha-Raw); they love her as devotedly as they do the other great-niece they are raising, fair, blonde Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who becomes Dido’s best friend.
(The cousins’ real-life friendship is well documented in a lively 1779 portrait of the two young women together, the painting of which Asante features in several scenes.)
But there is only so much convention the Mansfields are willing to flout. Given every advantage of money and breeding, Dido is still not allowed to dine with the family when they have guests—mostly because she is “illegitimate.” She cannot be formally introduced into society, like Elizabeth. And matchmaking for both girls’ futures is problematic. Elizabeth has been left penniless by her father, but while Dido inherits a fortune, her prospects depend on finding a suitor willing to “overlook” the circumstances of her birth, yet who is still her equal in class.
The great Miranda Richardson is on board as a scheming dowager who comes sniffing about with her two eligible sons (Tom Felton and James Norton). Also involved is young Davinier (Sam Reid), a clergyman’s son with legal aspirations who awakens Dido to the abolitionists’ cause.
What keeps the tale from becoming too fluffy is the juxtaposition of Dido’s coming-of-age with the celebrated legal case of the slave ship Zong, accused of fraud for jettisoning its “cargo”—human lives—to collect the insurance. Lord Mansfield rules on the case, and the film suggests that his guardianship of Dido, along with the “radical” politics of Davinier and his anti-slavery activists, leads him to this important legal step on the road to abolition.
Historically, while Mansfield heard the Zong case, it was his ruling on an earlier slave case that is now thought to have paved the way for the end of slavery in England and (much later) her colonies. The film’s romantic subplots are also fabricated, and while Davinier appears in Dido’s real-life biography, there’s no evidence he was an abolitionist firebrand.
Yet despite (or more likely because of) these fabrications, Belle succeeds as an effective portrait of a singular young woman understanding her own identity, and of a political era in which men of principle still dared to confront the moral issues of the day.
BELLE *** (out of four) With Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkerson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, and Sam Reid. Written by Misan Sagay. Directed by Amma Asante. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG. 105 minutes.