Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. It’s a name all but lost to history, but in director Amma Asante’s Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a British Naval officer and an African slave, raised as a noblewoman in 18th Century Britain, is remembered and re-imagined with startling results. Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role, the film couples the sumptuous aesthetics of the classic costume drama with themes of race, class, and gender – issues rarely explored in the genre.
Dido, sent to live with great-uncle and British chief justice Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) at his sprawling estate, must learn how to navigate in a world where the parameters of a hierarchical society do not, cannot entirely apply to her. Custom and tradition dictates that her color bars her from dining with her family, including cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) and great-aunt Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).
Custom also stipulates that she is unable to marry – too black to wed a gentleman, and too white (and rich) to wed anyone, black or white, beneath her station. Inhabiting two worlds at once, Dido begins to question the fairness of her position when she meets John Davinier (Sam Reid), a legal apprentice to her great-uncle who opens her eyes to the horrors of slavery, particularly in the case of the 1781 Zong massacre, when over one hundred slaves were murdered en route to the West Indies simply so their handlers could collect the insurance money on their lives. The realization of this changes Belle, as she begins to realize that her privileges as a mixed woman come at a cost.
While it has its fair share of smoldering romance and moments of the sort of lightness that we’ve come to expect from Austen-esque costume dramas, what’s refreshing about Belle is its bravery. The film could have taken a very one note, one perspective stance on the position of its main character. Instead, there is a great deal more nuance to Belle’s circumstances, and her relationships with those around her. Her uncle, who at first vehemently refused to bring up a “mulatto,” softens throughout the film but is reluctant to allow Belle to know about the realities of slavery, or even to acknowledge her own blackness.
Indeed, Assante is keen to establish that while Belle’s white family member may love her, they too share the prejudices of oppression. One scene in particular illustrates this perfectly: when Belle’s cousin Elizabeth tells her that she is ostensibly nothing, undesirable, repulsive to any suitors because of her color. It’s a powerful moment, one in which the movie establishes that there are no white saviors there to make things better. Belle is forced to do that for herself, and its her journey in educating herself and trying to convince her chief justice uncle to vote against the legality of the slave trade that makes the film more fascinating than most films in this genre.
Belle forms a rather interesting complement to another Fox Searchlight property, Steve McQueen’s much lauded 12 Years a Slave. Obviously, the two films tackle the same topic from very different points of view, but there’s a cinematic thread running between them that’s pretty significant. In recent days, there have been questions about McQueen’s nationality, on whether his being British was of any influence on telling an African American story. What Belle does brilliantly is emphasize the fact that the history of slavery is as much connected to Britain as it was to America, that it is a global history, and that its effects are more far-reaching than we’ll ever comprehend.