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UK director brings 18th-century black aristocrat to big screen

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When interviewed about his harrowing drama “12 Years a Slave” last year, director Steve McQueen spoke of his surprise at how few people had heard of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 19th century America.


Even fewer are likely to have come across the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman born to a British naval officer and a Caribbean slave in 1761.

But now she is the subject of “Belle”, a new film by British director Amma Asante that hits US cinemas on May 2 before landing in the UK and France this summer. After “12 Years a Slave”, it is the second movie by a black British filmmaker to tackle the subject of slavery in the last several months.

Britain’s struggle with ‘odious’ slavery

Raised by her loving, but class-conscious aristocratic paternal great uncle and aunt following the death of her mother, Belle lived a life of bewildering contradictions before her unusual circumstances became a catalyst in ending slavery in the UK.

Thought to be one of only two black English aristocrats from the era, Belle was brought up as an heiress at Kenwood House in north London, where she was educated, dressed and provided for alongside – but not in the same way as – her white half-cousin, Elizabeth Murray.

Britain’s black population was still indeterminably small at the time; Africans were considered a lesser species by many and were expected to be treated accordingly.

Moreover, the shipping of slaves by British merchants was a highly profitable industry for 18th century Britain, as the three-way route between Africa, the Americas and Europe continued to see Africans transported across the Atlantic and slave-labour-produced commodities ferried back to western Europe.

BAFTA award-winning director, Amma Asante. Photo: Sophie Pilgrim/ FRANCE 24.
BAFTA award-winning director, Amma Asante. Photo: Sophie Pilgrim/ FRANCE 24.

In the film, when Lord Mansfield first takes Belle in as an infant, he wonders if his position as Chief Justice of England will be jeopardised by the fostering of a mixed-race child.

In the end, it is Lord Mansfield’s position, and the impact of Belle’s presence in his life, which helped to bring about an end to slavery. In 1772, Mansfield deemed the ownership of servants unenforceable in England and Wales when ruling on the case of a fugitive slave, James Somerset: “[Slavery….] is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black [Somersett] must be discharged,” he ruled. Though the decision did not stop slavery all across the British Empire or halt British participation in the slave trade, it bolstered the abolitionist movement and effectively put an end to slavery in England -- almost a century before abolition in the US.

The novelty of a black woman in fancy period garb

It was a painting of Belle and her white half-cousin side by side that intrigued the film’s producer, Damian Jones, prompting him to send a postcard copy to director Asante. That postcard led to the production of the film. “When I first saw the painting, I wanted to know immediately who had commissioned it and who had painted it,” Asante told FRANCE 24 while in New York for an advance screening of the film at the UN. “Who were these courageous people in a time when you never saw a person of colour standing next to a white person and being treated with equal value?”

The portrait that inspired the movie, Asante discovered, was attributed to German neo-classical painter Johann Zoffany, and was radical in showing Belle at the same eye-level as her half-cousin -- an artistic composition that would remain taboo for years to come.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, attributed to German neo-classical painter Johann Zoffany. The painting was radical in showing the pair at the same eye-level.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, attributed to German neo-classical painter Johann Zoffany. The painting was radical in showing the pair at the same eye-level.

As with the painting, the movie’s intriguing poster, which shows an 18th-century black woman dressed in the regal attire of an English heiress, may pique the curiosity of viewers today.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the British actress who plays Belle, believes that young black girls from all over the world will be drawn to the film in part “because seeing themselves portrayed in a period drama is something totally new to them”.

Mbatha-Raw, who was born in Oxford to a white English mother and black South African father, sees Belle as a centuries-early forebear of what would become a societal norm. “So many people today are bi-cultural, not just bi-racial, so her story is very relevant to a modern audience,” she told FRANCE 24 in New York.

An uptick in films about slavery and the slave trade?

Belle’s story arrives in cinemas amid the painfully late, and still slow, emergence of films about far less uncommon experiences. Over the course of 400 years, European traffickers from the UK, France, Spain and Portugal transported some 15 million slaves from Africa to the colonised Americas, yet the global film industry seems to have largely ignored this chunk of recent Western history.

Aside from the popular TV mini-series “Roots” (1977), Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved” (the 1998 adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel) and Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” (1997), movies grappling with slavery and pre-20th century black life in general have indeed been few and far between.

The last two years have seen a slight uptick in such films, with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”, “12 Years a Slave” and “Belle”, the first two of which proved box office and critical successes (“12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for Best Picture this year, and “Django Unchained” was nominated the year before).

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Belle. Photo: Sophie Pilgrim/ FRANCE 24.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Belle. Photo: Sophie Pilgrim/ FRANCE 24.

But with subjects as excruciating and particular as slavery, questions of authorship and credibility sometimes arise. When “Django Unchained” came out in 2012, African-American director Spike Lee told Vibe magazine that he had no intention of seeing the film, calling its mix of comic, western and revenge film genres “disrespectful to my ancestors”.

And just last year, many questioned why it took a British director, Steve McQueen, to tell the wholly American tale of slavery that is “12 Years a Slave”.

Asante, who is from London, believes that the opportunity for McQueen, at least, came about because of a wider transformation, with America’s first black president an integral part of that process.

“I think it takes the perfect storm – a wide political, social instinct and drive to make the climate available for a film like this to be made,” she said. “I do think the Obama effect has had something to do with the fact that we’re more willing to open up, that we’re a world which is more interested in stories that relate to people we think of as very different from us.”

In other words, “Belle”, directed by a little-known filmmaker and starring an actress without a big name, would never have made it to the big screen in years past.

“Impossible,” said Asante, who, along with producer Jones, struggled to get “Belle” into production due to reluctance by British production companies to finance the film. “Even 10 years ago, this film could never have been made.”

“The proof is,” Mbatha-Raw chimed in, “it wasn’t made 10 years ago. And there’s a reason for that.”

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