GLOBAL — When we think of period dramas depicting real-life stories of enslaved people, we think of chattel slavery and the gruesome tales of men being whipped, women raped, and children sold to plantations far away from their parents – think Roots and 12 Years A Slave. But as vast the experiences of slaves and as deep the roots of the people who succumb to hundreds of years of slavery, there are other scenarios that expose the evil condition of slavery in various forms and levels of society. Such is the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved woman and Sir John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy Admiral, who takes her to live with his uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield.
In Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a brilliant performance as Dido, a mixed-race young woman living a life of privilege at Kenwood House with her great uncle William (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). She grows up with her cousin Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), who’s father abandoned her after the death of her mother. It’s a time when the morality of slavery is in question and her great uncle William Murray, who is also lord chief justice, is tasked with ruling on a landmark case that arguably marks the beginning of the end of the slave trade in England – which becomes a significant contention between Dido and her great uncle. Dido begins to question her position in society as well as in her family, with whom she is unable to share dinner when guests are visiting.
But the most intriguing story line is the one where both Dido and Elizabeth reach the age where it’s time for them to be introduced to society. Although some of the cultural traditions are denied to her such as participating in the coming out celebration and actively seeking a suitor for marriage, her life mirrors that of her cousin. In many ways they are both enslaved; Dido by a societal prejudice where she is valued based on the color of her skin and Elizabeth by cultural norms of the period that dictate a woman marry a man to take care of her and cement her status in life. Interestingly, Dido becomes wealthy when her father dies and leaves her money so that marriage is not necessary, while Elizabeth is disowned by her remarried father and is informed by her aunt and uncle she must marry because she is penniless. However, it’s the lack of a dowry that leaves Elizabeth without a suitor while Dido has garnered the interest of Oliver Ashford (James Norton), the son of a lord, whom her great uncle deems as acceptable; and John Davinier (Sam Reid), an anti-slavery activist and son of a minister, whom she loves.
On the surface the film appears to be about a family affected by slavery and racial division in England during the late 1700s. But it’s so much more. It explores not only the ideology and controversy surrounding the slave trade, but also issues affecting women during that era and addressing the various forms of slavery in society – it’s a film with heart and purpose.
Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox