Three years ago (in June 2014), I was on the verge of walking out of ‘Belle‘ – the second film by award-winning British-Ghanaian director Amma Asante.
This film was inspired by a painting in Kenwood House, Hampstead, London, which featured Dido Elizabeth Belle – a biracial woman born to enslaved African Maria Belle and English officer Admiral Sir John Lindsay in Jamaica in 1761.
The painting is particularly striking because unlike many from that time, which showed black and Asian people in subservient positions next to their white counterparts, Belle holds almost equal status to her white cousin Elizabeth.
I say almost because although both ladies are dressed finely, Belle is positioned ever so slightly behind her cousin.
The difference is subtle but that, for me, is the story of Belle’s life! She does not quite fit into any complete narrative, and inconsistencies in her life story, position her as a powerfully enigmatic and mysterious character. Just like her infamous painting which lay hidden for many years, her existence remains shrouded in mystery.
Fact and fiction
We know that her father brought her to his uncle – the eminent judge William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England – when she was six years old. Mansfield famously presided over the Somerset Case in 1772 and the Zong Massacre case in 1781. The Somerset Case ruled that a slave could not be forcibly removed from England after a slave master called Stewart tried to force his slave James Somerset to go to Jamaica to be sold on. Jamaica was considered to be one of the more brutal colonies for enslaved Africans to be sent to. The Zong Massacre case challenged slave trading syndicate Gregson, which made an insurance claim after throwing 133 enslaved Africans overboard to their death in the sea on a shipping voyage. The reason given was that there was not enough fresh water to keep them alive.
We also know that Dido was the Mansfields’ second adopted child. Elizabeth was the first. But was Belle accepted as a fully paid up member of the household and if so, why did she have to dine with servants when guests came? Why was she given three times less in Lord Mansfield’s will than her cousin Elizabeth, and why did she leave the house shortly after her Uncle’s death (before she was married) – having lived there since childhood?
She’s definitely an enigma who straddles two cultures and this mystery is heightened because the recorded material of her life is so frugal. It is also one of the main reasons, why I almost walked out of this cinema screening.
For me, Asante’s portrayal of Belle smoothed away much of her mystery and instead pigeonholed her into that classic Jane Austen-esque love story character.
One of my biggest gripes came from the fact that Asante’s Belle ends up having her racial identity ‘awakened’ by her soon-to-be husband Davinier. In Asante’s Belle, Davinier is a trainee lawyer focussed on ending the slave trade. It is a great ‘white saviour’ story but in real life, Davinier was a gentleman’s steward who married Belle and had three sons by her.
If I hadn’t researched Belle’s story, I would have assumed she married a trainee lawyer and her great Uncle and husband fought to end the practice of throwing enslaved Africans overboard (Zong case). But the truth is a little more complex. Lord Mansfield ruled against the syndicate owners but still considered slaves to be property, like horses. His decision not to award them the insurance was because new evidence showed that the syndicate has sailed past a number of ports where they could have acquired potable water. But they chose not to.
In my opinion, Belle’s story did not need to be embellished because it is a captivating and nuanced narrative that highlights the shades of grey in a story that is not just black and white. Even the summary of her life in the Kenwood House website alludes to this. But I also get it. Asante is a black, female director who has produced three films and, by her own admission, would have most likely produced many more if she had been afforded the same opportunities as most white and male directors gain.
I completely understand that movie makers are never completely free to produce or direct films that are historically factual and are often forced to fit films into a certain type of genre to ensure they make money. But in an environment where stories about the black experience are already under- or mis-told, isn’t it incumbent on those telling the story to depict them accurately?
I had wanted to put these gripes directly to Asante and got my chance when Africa Utopia staged a seminar with her in July. Although she firmly rejected my ‘white saviour’ analysis, she outlined that the portrayal of Belle as a non-white female would have been far more stereotypical and negative and for that reason, she won the battle in getting a film made that was a fairer portrayal of her life.
Check out exactly what she said in the following podcast here and I invite you to share your thoughts below.
How important are facts when producing films on Black history?
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