Unlike any slave scenario seen onscreen thus far, “Belle” tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her suitor, John Davinier (Sam Reid), who are instrumental in the abolishment of slavery in England. Inspired by a true story, Dido is the daughter of a slave and a Royal Navy Admiral. She is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkerson), and his wife, Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).
Dido’s lineage affords her certain privileges, but the color of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the tradition of her social standing. An arranged marriage to the son of Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), Oliver (James Norton) never takes place because Dido falls for firebrand lawyer Davinier, an advocate of human rights and the abolishment of slavery.
Opening in the midst of blockbuster movies clamoring for attention, The Film Strip asked Mbatha-Raw and Reid how they thought this film would fare. “To me, this is such a universally inspiring story and I think that there’s so much hope in it that everybody can relate to [it],” Mbatha-Raw said. It’s also a romantic, beautiful love story and director Amma Asante did such a wonderful job to make it look so sumptuous. In addition, it raises some challenging issues.”
“It’s a very unique story,” co-star Reid weighed in. “We have all seen period dramas over and over again and audiences like them but this is a very, very unique story that we’ve never seen before; never from this perspective. It tells a period of the slave trade history that we don’t know about, particularly that the Lord Chief Justice of England had a bi-racial ward. I mean, she was a member of the Aristocracy, a wealthy woman. It’s so unique.” “Not only that,” Mbatha-Raw added, “This is told by a woman and from a woman’s perspective. That just doesn’t happen very often. So for me it’s very refreshing. I feel like it’s a period drama that’s going to surprise you.”
The impetus for this story is a painting writer Misan Sagay saw in Scotland of two women, one Black and one White. After hearing about the story behind it, Mbatha-Raw was very much surprised. “For me, I couldn’t believe that we hadn’t heard of Belle before. When I first saw the painting on a postcard, I was so intrigued by it. I realized this is part of our cultural heritage in the UK but no one has explored it before. I felt like it was a story that needed to be told. I remember a quote that said if we don’t tell our stories, they will tell us.”
Syndicated Entertainment journalist Marie Moore reports on film and TV from her New York City base. Contact her at [email protected]