Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and inspired by the 1779 painting of aristocrat Dido Elizabeth Belle with her cousin Elizabeth Murray at Kenwood House where they grew up together, director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay delivered Belle back in 2014. The painting of the beautiful cousins was commissioned by their great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England. Dido was born to Maria Belle (a slave in the West Indies of African descent) and Captain John Lindsay, a naval officer. Following her mother’s death, Lindsay took Dido to England where she would be henceforth raised by Murray and his wife.
The film focuses on a very specific period of Dido’s life, which is set against some of the most gruesome details of the 18th century trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the colonial plantations, such as the heinous and yet common practice of white crews drowning African slaves during the middle passage and slave rape respectively. Additionally, the key theme of the film – the emergence of racist thought – is handled evenly and in this case becomes complicated by the British practices of arranged marriage as well as class and respectability politics.
While this aspect of the film in itself is commendable, the highlights of the film came when Asante directed the audience’s attention to the racialised imagery (via Dido’s own perceptivity) depicting blacks as the servants and subordinates of the social order. There are in fact many works by European authors illustrating the beauty, complexity, intellect and authority of men, women and children of colour during this period (1700s – 1800s), however as explored by filmmaker Tessa Boerman in her documentary Painted Black/Zwart Belicht (2008) these works are often ignored by the art historian community. In many ways the film Belle, just like the real-life painting of its titular character, challenges this attitude as well as the narrative of inferiority applied to colonised peoples.