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Controversial Inspiration

The film is not only inspired by true events, but by a portrait illustrating Elizabeth and Dido on equal ground. Considered controversial at the time. Considering that people of African descent were always shown in subservient roles to their white counterparts in portraits of the time, this particular show of equality created quite a stir.

Belle directed by Amma Asante, is a based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an enslaved African, Maria Belle. Dido is sent to live in the lavish, verdant estate of her great-uncle, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Mansfield, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson).  Dido is raised in equal comfort as a lady’s companion to her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) during slavery era England.

Dido is afforded the same fine silks, jewelry, and education as her white cousin Sarah. Her dresses are sumptuous and colorful. Her jewels and musical skill display that she is truly a child of privilege. Dido and Sarah grow as closely as two girls can and Dido’s skin color is rarely mentioned. The differences in social acceptance between Dido and Sarah only come into sharp clarity when Sarah is to be presented as eligible for marriage and Dido is not.

Dido’s grand-uncle tries manage her expectations, but how can you tell someone that they’re too low in status for their peers to consider for marriage and that anyone who would marry you is sure to be too low status for your consideration? As Dido begins to contemplate that this means she’ll be forever alone, destined to die an Old Maid, John Davinier (Sam Reid)  arrives at the estate as an aid to study law under Lord Mansfield.

Confirmed to be legally free and granted a large inheritance by her father’s will, Dido’s existence becomes something of a curiosity to the other aristocrats as she comes of age. They’re shocked that she joins them after dinner (she is not allowed to eat with them) and plays piano just as well as anyone. News of Dido’s handsome inheritance spreads and Oliver Ashford (James Norton) comes to call. He declares he’ll forgive her heritage and love her despite her color. His name would elevate her and Dido’s money would sustain them both.

However, Oliver’s brother James Ashford (Tom Felton) does not approve of the union and is very public and violent about his distaste for Dido’s presence. It would almost be unfortunate for Felton to play so many famous villains if he weren’t so very good at it. His hate and hostility towards Dido vibrates in  the air around him. It’s hard to imagine anyone else you could love to hate so much.

Davinier also displays interest in Dido. He wants to know more about the unique challenges she faces as he also challenges her to expand her world view. They bond over the evidence and papers that Dido absconds from Lord Mansfield about  The Zong Massacre trial. Impassioned politics makes fertile ground for a budding romance, the personal becomes political and Dido finds herself at an impasse with her future and her family.

Of the films that explore the lives of interracial women, many succumb to the “Tragic Mulatto” stereotype where the main character is torn between the two worlds of their heritage, yet never truly fitting in either. Inevitably, their life meets some sort of tragic end and happiness is impossible due to their inability to be accepted by society.

Belle subverts this stereotype beautifully.  While it is true Dido faces much rejection and racism, she remains an active participant in her own life. She demands more of her life than what Lord Mansfield (and all of her family members) proclaim she can have. Dido’s presence not only questions presumptions, but so does she. She refuses the injustice heaped upon her and refutes any attempts to make it the fault of her birth. Dido is not tragic, she ascends.

Maria Jackson
Review by Maria Jackson
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