When British producer Damian Jones (The Iron Lady) sent Amma Asante an 18th century postcard of two women — one white and one half-black, half-white — posing together in all their finery, he was fishing for a response from the 44-year-old British director who is of Ghanaian descent. Asante had one film to her credit, the 2004 the BAFTA award-winning racial themed A Way of Life, and was indeed intrigued.
“I wondered who was the white counterpart and why did the women appear to be equals,” she recalls. “Most importantly, I wanted to know who commissioned this painting.”
Asante has a keen interest in the historical representation of black subjects in European art and had recently attended an exhibition in Amsterdam, which traced the history back to the 1400s.
“What I learnt was oftentimes a black subject in a piece of art was very much like a pet,” she explains. “They were there to express the status and the class of the white muse, they were the background character and they were never looking out at the painter and often were depicted lower in the painting looking up at the white counterpart and often touching the white counterpart in order to draw your eye to that person. But the postcard depicting Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, was very different. Dido was actually a tiny bit higher in the painting looking out to the painter and she was dressed in expensive silks and jewels and it is Elizabeth who is touching her affectionately, rather than the other way around. So everything draws you to Dido.”
Asante went on to make Belle, about the background of the painting, based on a screenplay by Misan Sagay (TV movie Their Eyes Were Watching God), who expanded on the mixed race Dido’s actual life, especially her love life, while ensuring that the facts were correct regarding Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), who had commissioned the painting.
The majority of the facts are also true regarding Dido (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an Oxfordshire actress of South African descent). The youngster may have been the daughter of a slave yet when her biological father, Sir Admiral John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), went off to war, he asked his uncle Lord Mansfield to raise her. By the time she learnt of her father’s death and huge inheritance, Lord Mansfield had developed a strong paternal bond with the young beauty.
“We had to learn what happened inside Dido’s head as a starting place because the film is about her search for identity,” Asante explains. “So it was important for us to understand how the world sometimes makes us feel, how we feel burdened by what we are, by the shape of our eyes, the size of our nose, the colour of our skin, the size of our butt or whatever. Dido has to go from a place where she is uncomfortable with identity to one where she can integrate both sides of herself, both black and white, both as the child of a slave and the child of an aristocrat and bring those two things together and say, ‘I’m okay with that’.”
Dido’s appearance mattered far less when she became an heiress. In the more made-up scheme of things she had two men in hot pursuit: the money-grabbing James Ashford (Tom Felton from the Harry Potter films), son of Miranda Richardson’s scheming Lady Ashford, and the lowly, though forward-thinking, John Davinier (Sam Reid from The Railway Man), who in real life became her husband and the father of her children.
“It could be easy to see James as a racist, fascist pig,” Felton admits, “but a lot of it came from his fear of change and an unwillingness to accept how society was evolving.”
“The idea of ownership of another person is absurd yet everyone accepted it,” notes Reid. “Slavery didn’t exist in England at the time yet it was the country’s biggest economic trade. So it is shocking but was easy for me to identify with John Davinier as a man banging his head against a brick wall. Lord Mansfield ultimately agrees with him and knows how to work through the laws of society to change them.” (In the landmark Zong case where British slave owners drowned 142 African slaves and made an insurance claim for their loss, Lord Mansfield ruled in favour of the insurers and his verdict led to the end of the British slave trade in 1807.)
Asante says it is 100 percent historically correct that Dido lived in Lord Mansfield’s household. “We know that one of the American governors visited Lord Mansfield when he was presiding over the Somerset case, another case involving a slave in the Supreme Court. In his diaries he notes the negro who wore silks, who clearly had Lord Mansfield wrapped around her little finger and who did not dine with the guests but came out after dinner and attended the salon and was clearly an equal to Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), the cousin Dido grew up with at Kenwood House, one of our iconic English country estates. Dido was particularly intelligent and Lord Mansfield recognised that and so he did something with her that was very unusual at the time for women, which is that he worked with her in the study and she would take his dictation. He deemed her to be special and clever and clearly she was very loved. They had a tight father-daughter relationship and she was brought up in silks as a relative equal to her white counterpart. That was the gold dust for me.”
Dido’s case is believed to be unique in England, though there were more instances in France.
“I know there is a French gentleman from around the same period who is often referred to as the black Mozart,” Asante continues. “He was the child of a French aristocrat and an African slave, whose father decided his son was too good to be raised on a cotton field. So he brought him back to France and educated him and that young man grew up to move around with French aristocracy.”
In the film, Asante was keen to point out that black people have always been part of history. It’s just that they were rarely shown.
“This history belongs to all of us; it’s a history that doesn’t just belong to the black diaspora," she says. "One thing that was important for me to do in the film was to have one other woman of colour. Mabel the maid is the first black woman Dido comes across after leaving her mother and I wanted to show that Dido could have easily been a servant. Mabel has a Welsh accent because I wanted to show that we were everywhere. We weren’t in isolation.”
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Director: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson