The new film Belle, which opens Friday, introduces the world not only to a black heroine from the 18th century but also to rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The 30-year-old British-born actress plays the film’s lead, Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of a white English aristocratic father and black slave mother. Mbatha-Raw’s own mother, Anne Raw, is English and white, while her father, Patrick Mbatha, is a black South African.
The film is inspired by a true story, and Belle, who was raised as a free woman, is said to have played a role in the eventual demise of slavery in England. Her uncle Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who raised her, ruled on two crucial slave cases that changed history. It is a lesson that Mbatha-Raw tells The Root she knew little about before taking on the role, and something that she says most students in the United Kingdom do not learn about in school but maybe should.
When Mbatha-Raw is on the screen, she owns it, and in person she is even more captivating. As I walk into the room to interview her, I am greeted by a luminous smile and a cheerful disposition, even though she has spent the entire day promoting her film. I am the last journalist on her list, but she still answers all of my questions and even thanks me for wearing pearls.
Mbatha-Raw, who starred in the short-lived TV series Undercovers with Boris Kodjoe, eagerly shared her thoughts on why a film like Belle matters and why it’s a different story from 12 Years a Slave.
The Root: Why do you think Belle is so important, and why should people see the film?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I feel like it is part of our cultural legacy. In the U.K. it is an area of history that has kind of been ignored in terms of Britain’s contribution to the slave trade. I also think it is very refreshing because this is the first time I have seen a period drama with a biracial woman as the lead, and it is told from a female British perspective.
The film explores issues of identity, race, class and gender, which are very universal themes, but also the film is this sweeping love story. It is such a different perspective, and I think it is important to know, as a biracial person myself, that we have roots in history.
I am really excited for young girls to see this film. I grew up watching Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility and Kate Winslet, who I love. It didn’t matter to me that they didn’t look like me, because they are such brilliant actresses. But I think there is something inspiring, just on a subliminal level, [about] having a mixed-race actress front and center and a black female director [Amma Asante]. That sends the message that you can do it, and if that inspires somebody who is not getting the encouragement they need from their surroundings, then that would make me really happy.
TR: The racism and slavery in Belle were subtle, especially in comparison with the most recent film to delve into that subject matter, 12 Years a Slave, which was physically severe. Still, the emotional pain can be seen on your character’s face. How difficult was it for you to go there as an actress?
GMR: I think they are somewhat two sides of the same coin. In the wake of 12 Years a Slave, we are dealing with the British perspective. That British perspective of the slave trade was that the U.K. benefited from slavery, although slaves were not working the land in the same way they were in the U.S. It was also swept under the carpet in Britain and sort of hidden.
For me, what was so great as an actress and what the director, Amma Asante, really brought out of our performances is the nuances. This is not a story about brutality. It is a very genteel world, but nonetheless the daily humiliations and the subtleties of racism … I think are very contemporary. The moments that people go through every day were what we wanted to bring out—a very human story and a very personal viewpoint of what it would be like to grow up in that period.
TR: You have already been in a number of U.S. productions, including the Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts film Larry Crowne, the TV show Undercovers and the Jude Law-helmed Hamlet on Broadway. What do you hope Belle will do for your career here in the U.S.?
GMR: Oh, gosh, who knows. For me, I’m really excited to be taking on my first lead role in a movie. I just wrapped another movie, called Black Bird, which is my second lead role and was shot here in the U.S. For me, I just want to keep telling inspiring stories and working with creative directors, so hopefully that will happen.
TR: What’s next for you? Are there any films or roles that you want?
GMR: I would love to play Cleopatra. That is a role I have had my eye on for a long time. I would love to tell an apartheid story. I think in terms of the healing that needs to go on in South Africa’s evolution, that would be really important to tell a story about that. There are so many other stories to discover besides the Mandela story, so I am on the lookout for one of those.
Editor’s note: For more about the story of Belle, read “Belle: A Lesson About British Slavery Buried in a Love Story.”