In Belle, Racism Rings True in Past and Present
Last night Fox Searchlight hosted a screening of their upcoming release of “Belle” exclusively for members of The Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild. The screening was followed by a Q&A with the film’s British producer, Damian Jones. The film, based on the true story of a mixed race woman who is taken in after her enslaved African mother dies and is raised at the family estate of her father, a Captain in the British Navy. The film was inspired by a painting of Dido Belle and her cousin Bette which now hangs in the present Earl of Mansfield’s home in Perth, Scotland. Damian Jones had been developing the project with the writer, Misan Sagay in the spirit of a Jane Austen even as he produced the film “Iron Lady” with Meryl Streep.
Upon returning to “Belle” director, Amma Asante who like the writer is a woman of African descent, cast the relatively unknown, mixed-race Gugu Mbatha-Raw whom producer, Jones had worked with years earlier on another project. She was talented and “light on her feet” after years of working in television in the USA. The film received funding from BFI (British Film Institute) for the $10 million budget. Producer, Jones pointed out that in the UK and other places around the world it is easier to get tax subsidized funding for film projects unlike in Los Angeles which is supposed to be the center of the entertainment industry. The film was shot exclusively on location and not on a sound stage. Unfortunately the real Kenwood House was undergoing renovations so interiors were shot in a combination of stately homes in the areas around London.
When it came to getting distribution, the sales representatives, Bankside Films advised against going to Cannes where acquisitions executives are seeing a steady stream of product for sale over the length of the festival and film market. Rather, they decided to stage simultaneous screenings of the film at a later date for distributors in London, New York and Los Angeles; that is when Fox Searchlight stepped up and bought “Belle”. Though the film was completed in time for the busy 2013 awards season release schedule, Searchlight held off to give “Belle” a chance to be noticed rather than get lost in the pre-Oscar season log-jam of quality art house films. Mr. Jones feared that a story about racism in the 18th Century would not feel relevant in a world where the United States had elected a black president, but was reminded as recently as yesterday with the controversy over the racist statement made about superstar basketball star Magic Johnson by Clippers owner Donald Sterling, racism is something that has yet to be conquered.
Kudos to Fox Searchlight for continuing to distribute quality stories that shine a light on past racism like it’s Oscar winning film “Twelve Years a Slave” and their awards season release of the Nazi Germany era film, “The Book Thief.” By giving context to the issue through fine storytelling, this weekend’s limited release of the fascinating true life of Dido “Belle” will surely find an audience willing to embrace its message of treating all human beings as equal, no matter what their race may be.
Nicole Hansen, President of Green Galaxy Pictures
Independent Film Producer and Member of the Producers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild