'Belle' breaks through the aristocratic color barrier
05:00 AM, Jul 22, 2013
British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw used to envy her classmates from the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London as they moved on to perform in lavish English period dramas. But as an actress of color, she found it difficult to land such historic roles.
“I was somewhat frustrated, I have always loved period dramas and my friends were in these gorgeous-looking Jane Austen adaptations,” says Mbatha-Raw, 30. “I would be like, ‘I have all of this training, when will I get a chance to explore that side?’ “
Mbatha-Raw, who has held roles in several TV series and was a supporting player in the 2011 Tom Hanks vehicle Larry Crowne, finally has found her opportunity in Belle (opening May 2, 2014). It’s the exceedingly rare story of a mixed-race woman who transcended the lily-white aristocracy of 18th-century England.
Belle is inspired by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was born as the result of an affair between British naval officer Capt. Sir John Lindsay and an African slave woman who died when Belle was young. Lindsay (Matthew Goode) beseeched his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield and England’s Lord Chief Justice (Tom Wilkinson), to raise his mixed-race daughter in the manner befitting his aristocratic bloodline unheard of in England at the time.
Lord Mansfield agreed and raised Belle with deep affection along with his niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), at his Kenwood House estate.
The two young women, who grew up as sisters, are depicted in a famous 18th-century portrait that inspired the filmmakers. Director Amma Asante knew this was the period piece with a twist she had always yearned to take on.
“This is the story I get to tell from the point of view of a young black female who existed in that time and really wore those dresses and really spoke the language,” says Asante. “It’s a familiar world but never quite seen in this way before.”
The filmmakers drew upon numerous sources, including a journal entry from an American businessman at the time who talked about the extraordinary family.
“He said there was a ‘negro’ female, as he put it at that time, who appeared to have Lord Mansfield wrapped around her little finger and who had the run of the household,” says Asante. “He made it clear the family was very fond of her.”
The seemingly idyllic life is not without severe challenges, especially as Belle comes of age. In London, she is not allowed to eat with her family during formal functions, and finding a suitable marriage partner, crucial at the time, is difficult. Further, Lord Mansfield is involved in a divisive legal case involving the commanders of a slave ship who had left ill men, women and children to die at sea in the hopes of retrieving insurance money for the “cargo.”
All of this plays out while Belle falls in love with John Davinier (Sam Reid), a minister’s son beneath her social level.
“At its heart it’s a deeply romantic love story and a coming-of-age tale for Dido who tries to find her identity. That inspired me,” says Mbatha-Raw. “To see a brown-skinned girl in this context is very visually arresting. It’s important for me to know that this woman really lived and I am thrilled to share that with the world.”