BELLE: Politics, Art, History, and Social Conscience

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Iconic 1779 painting depicting Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray

After a nearly a decade, BAFTA-winning British director Amma Asante made a triumphant return to MIFF this past March to present her second feature film, Belle, voted “audience favorite” by Miami Film Society members.  Belle also took home the The International Jury of SIGNIS (the World Catholic Association for Communication) award for its “multi-layered depiction of the challenges to the value of human life and dignity wherever a profit-driven system makes commodification of persons acceptable.” In 2005, Asante won MIFF’s Best Dramatic Feature in World Cinema and the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) award for her feature film directorial debut, A Way of Life.

Inspired by a 1779 painting depicting Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, Belle screenwriter Misan Sagay gathered tiny nuggets of history and wove them into a deeply romantic love story and coming-of-age historical drama that breaks through the aristocratic color barrier. The painting is iconic because it is the first English painting that depicts a black person on the same eye level as a white person. Also, Lady Elizabeth’s hand lies upon Dido´s waist, suggesting affection and equality rather than a subordinate status.

l to r: Oprah Winfrey & Belle director Amma Asante at Oprah’s garden party in Montecito, Belle poster, Amma Asante & MIFF executive director Jaie Laplante at Regal South Beach

In the film, Gugu Mbatha-Raw shines as eponymous 18th century character Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of an African slave and British naval officer Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), who imposes upon his chief justice uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and aunt Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) to embrace Dido into their household. Their sense of decency compels them to agree, but Dido has an unusual status in the home. While she is treated well and educated, she is not allowed to dine with her family, especially when they are entertaining, but she does have a certain degree of status as heiress to her father’s considerable fortune.

Meanwhile, the case of the Zong massacre (where an estimated 142 African slaves were purposely drowned so that their owners could make an insurance claim) comes before Lord Mansfield’s court, and the private issues at home weigh greatly upon him as he struggles toward making a historic decision. There is also a love story at the heart of all the drama that is said to have propelled the abolition of slavery in England.

The film explores a particular time of social change and social conditioning, where we find people responding to Dido on an instinctive level. However, due to the manners, etiquette, and prevailing wisdom of the time they were often held back from being truly authentic. She’s the child of a slave and an aristocrat, the child of a black person and a white person, a woman of color in an aristocratic situation. And all of these things were seen by the prevailing wisdom as contradictory. Lo and behold, being a contradiction in society these days could actually be an asset!

l to r (clockwise): Tom Wilkinson (as Lord Mansfield), Sam Reid (as John Davinier) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Dido)
l to r (in Belle): Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Dido) & Sarah Gadon (as Lady Elizabeth); Tom Wilkinson (as Lord Mansfield); Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Dido) & Sam Reid (as John Davinier)
Oprah Winfrey saw Belle less than a week ago and her passion for the film inspired her to throw an impromptu garden party for the cast at her estate in Montecido California, simply wanting to give the film a great salute and to help spread the word! In a recent #OWNSHOW interview, Karamo Brown asked Asante, “Why should people go and see this film?” Asante replied, “You’ll learn something about slavery that I guarantee you did not know. There is an element of slavery that shocked me to the core, and still shocks me to this day. I believe you will come out of this movie feeling better about who we all are.”

Belle hits South Florida theaters—Regal South Beach Cinemas, Paragon Grove 13, AMC Sunset Place, AMC Aventura, Regal Shadowood (Boca Raton), and Cinemark Paradise 24 (Davie)—on Friday, May 16th! [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][view trailer] — Tatyana Chiocchetti


Jaie Laplante

Jaie Laplante is the Miami Film Festival's executive director and director of programming. Learn more about Jaie on Programmers.