The talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in the inventive period piece Belle.
I grew up seeing certain images in fairy tales. These images depicted a European, Victorian world that I wasn’t a part of and didn’t come from: bouncy dresses, British aristocracy, long robes, sharp accents, castles, virtue, and power. We were taught to revere these images, to associate royalty with Europe, to learn the order of kings, queens, princesses, and lords. But rarely did these images reflect us. Until now.
Belle, directed by BAFTA-award-winning filmmaker Amma Asante, reassigns this familiar princess narrative to a biracial woman of color. In the film, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) falls for a progressive white lawyer at the height of legal proceedings in the Zong slave ship massacre. Jane Austen sensibilities meet protest narrative in this evocative period piece of one woman’s journey to claim her identity amidst the highly charged international backdrop of slavery, law, and morality.
And it all began with a real-life painting. Director Asante found inspiration for the new film in an 18th century painting by Johann Zoffany that depicts Dido Elizabeth Belle. In the painting, the real-life Belle, who was born in 1761 to British Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved woman named Maria Belle, is seen alongside her white cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray.
Both women share an almost equal portion of the image, at a time when entrenched racism deemed them anything but. Both women were raised by their uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who ruled on important cases related to the abolishment of slavery in Europe while raising them. In the image, Belle brims with a vivacious energy. She has large eyes and a curious smile that makes us want to know more. It appears she’s in a state of movement, while her counterpart stands stiff and refined.
This is a different image than I grew up seeing in classical European art, where black subjects often appear in servant-like roles, as accessories to the main white subject.
Artist Joshua Reynolds painted Lady Elizabeth Keppel and an unnamed servant in 1761.
There’s personality and life in this painted image of Belle and Asante captures it fully in her film. In a star-making performance, Mbatha-Raw breathes life into what could’ve easily been a woman of color stand-in for a Jane Austen character. Here, Belle is regal, yet troubled, intelligent yet naïve. Like the painting, she’s in a constant state of movement, searching for answers to questions about her place in a white, aristocratic society that sees more value in class and money than anything else. Asante’s assured, confident directing keeps the film’s narrative firm as cultural details—like Belle being unable to comb her own thick hair—are paired with the larger legal conflict involving the Zong slave ship, in which 142 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard by ship crew to collect insurance money. The case clearly hits Belle personally, since her own mother was enslaved.
Screenwriter Misan Sagay and Asante find clever ways to infuse this historical event into Belle’s relationship with a politically astute lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), whose passion for justice mirrors her own self-awakening. They strike an unspoken intensity that cinematographer Ben Smithard frames in tight close-ups that elevate the romance. The film is enjoyable in the way that a really great Scandal episode can be: it finds ways to merge melodrama with thoughtful dissection of race, class, and sexism even when race and class aren’t directly stated or mentioned. Asante’s directorial voice is sharp and focused, and if you didn’t know her before, take note. Belle is historical fiction that manages to speak to contemporary conversations of race, identity, feminism, and human rights. And it all began with one image.
Belle opens in theaters Friday, May 2nd.
Related Reading: A Personal Reminder that Women Have What it Takes to Make Film.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker. She writes and direct movies about black mermaids, black lesbians, black girls in-between worlds, and boys too.