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02 May 2014

The little girl who changed history

The little girl who changed history

Belle rights a great wrong: it tells the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, which has gone unsung for centuries. On the regal walls of Scone Palace, hangs an extraordinary 18th-century painting, depicting two women in the gardens of Kenwood House, in Hampstead, London. Both are wearing lavish dresses and ornate jewellery; both are holding the instruments of genteel hobbies; both are occupying the foreground. These ladies are evidently companions, but their individualities shine through as well. Elizabeth Murray is pale, intelligent and demure; her half-cousin, Belle, is striking, vivacious and black. A black society woman is indeed a first for this era, but why did this painting appear in a 2007 exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain? Why have historical papers often named Belle “the little girl who changed history”?1 

Answers to these questions can be found in the delightful film Belle which releases in UK cinemas from 13 June. In the film, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the daughter of a British navy admiral (Matthew Goode) and an enslaved African woman. Having been born into slavery Belle is then raised among the nobility when her father entrusts her to the care of his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who is the Lord Chief Justice – the most powerful judge in England. 

Belle’s position in society is precarious. Even at home, her status is called into question by restrictions that apply to her but not to Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). She confronts Lord Mansfield about one such inconsistency: “How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with my family?” When Kenwood is privy to guests, Belle is received as some exotic spectacle, after the rest of the company have dined together. 

Nevertheless, in director Amma Asante’s own words: “This is the story of a woman who is loved.”2 Elizabeth looks upon Belle as a sister, and Lord Mansfield is deeply fond of her. He demonstrates his respect and affection for Belle by attempting to treat these girls equally as far as he believes is possible – and in some cases bending convention in favour of Belle. Asante was astonished by this treatment: “I’m in awe of the level of courage that must have taken.”3 

In spite of the boundaries curtailing her social life, Belle is courted by Lord Mansfield’s apprentice, an abolitionist named John Davinier (Sam Reid). Here the film exposes other forms of discrimination, since despite the social taboo of Belle’s skin colour, Lord Mansfield considers Davinier beneath her because he was born into a lower class. “There are rules in place which dictate how we live,” Lord Mansfield insists. 

“You break every rule when it matters enough,” Belle replies. “I am the evidence.” As Davinier’s influence on Belle grows, she must persuade Mansfield to face his own prejudices and refine his integrity. 

This process comes to a climax when Lord Mansfield presides over the case of the Zong Massacre. The crew of the ship Zong drowned 142 African slaves, and claimed £30 a head for ‘damaged goods’ from their insurer when they docked. The insurer is on trial for refusing to pay. Mansfield must decide whether these slaves were merely property. But can Britain’s economy afford to rule against its slave owners? He must confront the discrepancy between his head and his heart, the law and justice. 

Following the success of films such as Lincoln, The Butler and especially 12 Years a Slave, slavery has never been more of a hot topic in worldwide cinema. Belle is unique in looking at this universal issue from a specifically British perspective, and as well depicting a fascinating period of social change, shares the romance and lightness of touch of a Jane Austen novel. 

Belle also focuses on the theme of identity – and the anguish that ensues when it is withheld from a person. Mansfield is determined that Belle should not experience this: “I’ve enabled every rule of convention, so that you would know exactly where you belong.” And yet, she tells him: “I don’t know that I find myself anywhere.” These films are calling for a new community. A community characterised by love – the kind of love that could define Belle and inspire Mansfield to change history. A community that fights to uphold every individual’s humanity. Faced with the realities of human trafficking, child soldiers and debt bondage, perhaps we too can find courage in the parting words of Belle’s father: “What is right can never be impossible.” 

Belle is released in cinemas on 13 June 2014. For free official resources see damaris.org/belle

Holly Price is a writer with Damaris, which provides free resources for Damaris Film Clubs as well as the Damaris Film Blog. See damaris.org/filmclubs and damaris.org/filmblog

1 Amma Asante in Inkoo Kang, ‘Belle Director Amma Asante on Challenging Stereotypes About Black Directors,’ Indiewire (28 February 2014)
2 Amma Asante in Inkoo Kang, ‘Athena FF: Amma Asante’s Belle Revisits Jane Austen Through Black POV,’ Indiewire (10 February 2014)
3 Amma Asante in Susannah Butter, ‘The story behind Dido Belle – the bi-racial Londoner who helped end slavery in Britain, Standard (8 January 2014)

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