The history of slavery in the Americas did not begin and end with the American South. For centuries, the economy of the lucrative Caribbean sugar islands colonized by European powers depended on imported African slaves.
Yet slavery was abolished in the British islands 30 years before the American Civil War—in the courts, not on the battlefield. One possible reason for which is explored in Belle, an engaging, handsomely-mounted drawing room drama about a real-life young woman of color who may have had an impact on the legal campaign to end slavery in England.
Belle is the love child of two determined Anglo-African women filmmakers, scriptwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante, who labored for seven years to bring the story to the screen.
|Tom Wilkerson and Gugu Mbatha-Raw|
Their subject is Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of English Naval officer Captain Sir John Lindsay, and a black slave woman, whose father had her raised in gentility by his aristocratic uncle, Lord Mansfield—the Lord Chief Justice of England.
The film begins in 1769 with the child, Dido, delivered to her new home. Matthew Goode brings his usual panache and conviction to his few brief minutes of screen time as Lindsay. Tom Wilkerson and Emily Watson are the initially uncertain Lord and Lady Mansfield.
But as Dido grows into a lovely young woman (played with grace and spirit by the beauteous Gugu Mbatha-Raw), they love her as devotedly as they do the other great-niece they are raising, fair, blonde Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who becomes Dido's best friend.
|The real-life Dido and Elizabeth|
(The cousins' real-life friendship is well documented in this lively 1779 portrait of the two young women together. The painting of this portrait figures in many of Asante's scenes.
Notice how Dido is dressed like an "exotic" in the popular style of the day, but also see how much affection the girls have for each other.)
The great Miranda Richardson (below) is on board as a scheming dowager who comes sniffing about with her two eligible sons (Tom Felton and James Norton).
Sam Reid plays a clergyman's son with legal aspirations who awakens Dido to the abolitionists' cause.
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What keeps the tale from becoming too fluffy is the juxtaposition of Dido's coming-of-age with a celebrated legal case involving slavery, on which Lord Mansfield's ruling was an important legal step on the road to abolition.
While Reid's character is based on a real person, most of the film's romantic entanglements are entirely fabricated.
Yet, despite (or more likely because of) these fabrications, Belle succeeds as an effective portrait of a singular young woman understanding her own identity, and of a political era in which men of principle still dared to confront the moral issues of the day. (Read more)