When you think of Jane Austen-type dramas, you don’t think of black heroines, but a new film hitting theaters on Friday wants to change that. Belle is a period piece with all the beautiful costumes and grand English homes, but it features a biracial star, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and is helmed by a black director, Amma Asante. The movie—based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial woman raised in an aristocratic society—also deals head on with the issue of slavery in England, which was not abolished in that country until 1833.
Like many historical dramas, the film takes liberties with the facts because so little of Belle’s life is known. We do know she was born circa 1761 to a black slave mother and white well-to-do father. As a child, she was sent to live with her uncle Lord Mansfield, England’s chief judge at the time. The film depicts how Belle most likely influenced his decision in the Zong ship trial (pdf), in which more than 130 slaves were thrown overboard to die. Lord Mansfield also ruled in the Somerset slavery case.
While Belle does not pack the brutal emotional punch of 12 Years a Slave or boast the star wattage of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, it does shine on its own as a worthy addition to the black historical experience that has long been missing in theaters. It also points a spotlight on the role England played in the slave trade while depicting how one biracial woman may have changed history.
Asante, who won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Award for her first film, A Way of Life, which she wrote and directed, spoke to The Root about the importance of her newest film and why she left out the brutality of slavery.
The Root: Why did you choose the subject of Belle, and how much of your movie is true to the historical nature of the story?
Amma Asante: I came on board this project in 2009 after being sent a picture postcard of a famous portrait of Belle by the producer Damian Jones. He had been trying to tell the story for quite some time. The project had even been at HBO as a TV movie and had not worked out.
I had been to an exhibition that looked at the history of black people in European art from the 14th century onward. We were looked at as accessories, very subservient, there to express the status of the main protagonist of the painting, much like a pet. But the painting of Belle and her [white cousin] Elizabeth is different. Dido is not an accessory. She is front and center, looking straight out at the painter, which is unusual. Everything draws your eye to her. After seeing the painting, it dawned on me how important it was, and I wanted to bring you that in the story.
Once we reveal the painting in the film, you see Lord Mansfield’s value for Dido and you understand his courage in commissioning that painting and immortalizing her so you and I can talk about Belle today. It was his courage in going against the tide of tradition that was the beginning. I saw a chance to tell a story that was about politics, art and history. Then we go into the issues of race, gender, class and status from those points of view.
TR: Your movie has been called the English version of 12 Years a Slave simply because it deals with the issue of slavery, but it is a very different movie. First of all, you do not show the physical harshness of slavery, but you do show the emotional toll. Was there ever a question of making a harsher movie?
AA: There was never a question because the draw for me was to be able to use the painting of Belle to tell a very Jane Austen-esque story. For better or worse, Jane Austen never really dealt with slavery because this was a genteel world, and one did not discuss such vulgar things—you know, British society. Yet slavery was the trade that was holding up the economy. So what I wanted to do was make an Austen-esque typical period drama, where I could put a woman of color front and center and prove it could be done.
If I had made it a much harsher movie, that would not have proved those types of period dramas could contain a black woman front and center and could work. Early versions of the script did have slaves, but that was not the story I wanted to tell. It is a challenge to pack an emotional punch with the movie and never see a slave …
TR: Let's talk about being a black female director. How difficult is that, and what differences do you see working in England and Europe as a whole versus the U.S.?
AA: We basically do not register on the scale when it comes to black women; we are under 1 percent [of directors overall]. It is tough being a woman-of-color director because I am neither the color or the shape that some people are comfortable with seeing in their directors, and that makes it hard. The fact that I use my femininity as a tool and not as a hindrance is not always comfortable to people, to be honest with you. But I believe it’s about creating a track record that is undeniable.
With my first movie, I won a British Academy Award, so no one can come to me with the argument I cannot direct. They may not like the directing, but in terms of can I hit a budget, can I hit a deadline, can I do all those practical technical things, yes, I can do that. So you keep on fighting the fight.
TR: Having made this film and gaining a stronger sense of history, do you view things differently?
AA: It has changed the way I look at things. A film like this makes you mature. It’s not just the negative. What I wanted to do with Belle was also celebrate something good in our history. The highest judge at the time—who was, next to the king, the most powerful man in England—reared a black child as his own and loved her. There was a little girl who looked like me and you, who helped to change the course of our history. That’s a good thing; we can celebrate that.
Editor’s note: Read more about Belle at The Root:
“Belle: Did a Biracial Woman Help End Slavery in England?”
“Belle: A Lesson About British Slavery Buried in a Love Story”