In a scene from Amma Asante’s stunning period drama Belle (2013), based on true events, the young daughter of an enslaved woman from the West Indies and a British naval officer studies the portrait gallery in her opulent new English home. One painting in particular, featuring an aristocratic male in powdered wig and pastel silk suit, captures her attention. But it is not the man at the center of the portrait who captivates the girl; it is the black male youth, an attendant, at his heel. The youth’s status is clear from the way he is depicted in relation to the aristocrat—he is diminutive, positioned on his knee beneath his master, and casting his eyes graciously towards him. Within the context of the painting, he is merely an accessory, of no importance except to highlight the prominence of the man he serves. But Asante repositions the youth, placing him in the center of the camera’s frame with the nondescript aristocrat shown in partial view to his side. The vantage point is that of the title character, Dido Belle Lindsay. Although her father has not only given her his name, but a place in his family home, and ultimately his fortune, Dido is reminded by the black servant in the portrait of her own precarious position within the family and more generally, within 18th century British Society.
Portraiture functions as a framing device and a metaphor in Asante’s film. Years later, Dido—Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) in her feature debut—hesitantly agrees to be painted with her cousin Elizabeth (Sara Gadon). She returns to the portrait of the aristocrat and servant, wondering how she will appear in the finished piece—as her white cousin’s handmaid, or as her equal? The painting revealed in the film is the same as the painting of the real life Dido and her cousin Elizabeth, which has captivated audiences and art historians because of the near equal prominence given to both women, and the warmth between them. Dido is positioned only slightly to the side of her cousin, who reaches out, rather than down to her. Though Dido takes up less canvas space than Elizabeth, her charming smile, white silken gown, and unusual head wrap capture the viewer’s gaze. In the film, Dido and Elizabeth are also presented as equals, though Mbatha-Raw is always slightly more central, more in focus, or more vibrantly dressed than Gadon. The symbolic connection between Dido and the boy in the painting serves as a reminder that the stories of people of color have been subjugated for centuries. However, Asante’s visual cues subtly inform the viewer that it is time for the marginalized figures of Western art, history, and society to move into the foreground.
Belle offers a compelling look at the intersections of class, race, and gender in 18th century Britain. Dido recognizes her privileged position, noting that wealth has “freed” her twice—from the economic conditions of servitude and from the necessity of marrying solely to be kept as a man’s property. But appreciating these advantages does not mean that she must keep her head down and be grateful for narrowly escaping “her lot” as a dark-skinned woman; instead, Dido uses her unique position to bring about change in a society that legally sanctions inhuman practices. Dido’s caretaker is the influential British barrister Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who Dido learns is presiding over an insurance claim involving a slave ship. The case is an investigation of the Zong Massacre of 1781, when an estimated 142 slaves were drowned by the ship’s crew who alleged that due to a lack of drinking water, they were forced to throw the slaves overboard so that the rest of the “human cargo” and crew could survive. Alternately, the insurers claimed that the traffickers were intentionally ridding the ship of diseased slaves to collect on their “lost goods.”
The treatment of the case at the heart of Belle is profound not only for its recollection of the barbarous event onscreen, but for the lens through which it is told. The more expected Hollywood version would focus on Lord Mansfield as he worked through internal conflicts and external pressures to ultimately buck the system. This wouldn’t be an untrue story, as Lord Mansfield’s landmark decisions were both courageous and historically significant, but it would be a narrative that we’ve seen and heard many times. Asante gives us something new and necessary. As Ava DuVernay has done more recently with Selma, Belle offers the rare onscreen historical event from a black perspective (both films, coincidentally, feature Tom Wilkinson playing a complex political ally, rather than a simplistic hero). These stories are not about the great forgotten black figures behind the white men who accomplish great feats; they are about the activism and the interventions of people of color who challenge the convictions and long-held beliefs of white individuals and white society.