The Belle of Brittania: Amma Asante directs true story of a young mixed-race woman who changed history

There are two women in the 18th-century portrait, one black and one white. The white woman is situated more prominently in the foreground. From the book she holds low in her lap, the painting’s compositional through-line travels at a curve—rising, dipping, rising again—before finally coming to rest upon the face, and smile, of the black woman.  If you were to draw this line on a piece of paper, it would look like an “S” turned on its side. It meanders, but ultimately terminates at a point above where it began.

It began at Lady Elizabeth Murray and ends with her half-cousin, Dido Elizabeth Belle.

“I just thought, this is incredible. And I knew there was nothing else like it,” says Amma Asante, the director of Belle, Fox Searchlight’s May 2 release inspired by the life of the real Dido Elizabeth Belle, illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral and the great-niece of Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, the man who raised her, and whose court rulings influenced the English abolition of slavery. The unusual painting also struck British producer Damien Jones, who, prior to Asante’s involvement, tried to develop a film about Dido in the United States. It was the British Film Institute that suggested Jones approach Asante. At the time, Asante hadn’t helmed a feature since her first critically acclaimed picture, the BFI-financed A Way of Life, earned recognition from BAFTA in 2005. Jones’ idea seemed like a good fit for the Jane Austen fan: “I am obsessed with the period that Belle is set in,” says Asante. “Completely obsessed.”

Coincidentally, Asante’s interest in the past had recently been piqued by a museum exhibit chronicling the history of the black muse in European art. “I knew when I saw this painting, because of this exhibition that I’d been to, that this was an unusual painting. Because during that period, people of color, we were normally in the painting because we were kind of like pets. We were there to express the status of the main focus of the painting. So we were usually in the background. We were usually lower down, never looking at the artist who was painting us. We were usually touching the main focus of the painting, who was obviously always white. The hand would be going up, and it would draw your eye to the main focus, and we would be looking adoringly at that person.”

The portrait of Dido and Elizabeth is so anomalous because it subverts traditional representational norms as they should have applied to both women. Not only is the eye drawn to the black Dido and not the white Elizabeth (who, for all her foreground prominence, is reaching out to touch her co-subject, and not the other way around), but the former points “at herself in a way that I and many art historians have interpreted to be really confident.” Stranger still is the fact such a work exists at all.

“What struck me was, [Dido’s] in this painting, but somebody chose to commission it. Who was that courageous person? Who was that person who said, ‘I want a painting that looks like this?’ And of course, it was Lord Mansfield.”

Brought to live with her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) while her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), pursues a naval career, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an actress with “an innate grace and dignity,” Asante attests) is raised a privileged young woman not unlike her half-cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), for whose upbringing Lord Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) are also responsible. Except that Dido and Elizabeth are unlike, where it matters in and to society: one is half-black and illegitimate, the other, white and legitimate, if the daughter of a disinterested father. The girls are best friends and confidantes, though not, technically speaking, inseparable. They are not allowed to eat together when company is present, for instance. Dido may join the party after supper, but she is barred from participating in the meal itself. As a justifiably confused Dido Belle asks Lord Mansfield, “How can I be too highborn to eat with the servants, but too low to eat with my family?”

Lord Mansfield’s affection for his great-niece ensures she is well-treated in his home, but he cannot keep the world at bay, and the world, in the form of the Ashford family in particular, sees color in sharper contrasts.

When Dido’s father dies, leaving her a large inheritance, her future brightens. The formerly moot possibility of marriage is now viable, and for the first time Dido the heiress finds herself socially superior to Elizabeth. With the promise of a handsome dowry secure at her back, Dido may certainly look forward to a better match than, say, one with a vicar’s son, such as he who comes to study with Lord Mansfield. But this John Davinier’s (Sam Reid) passionate idealism and fervor to right humanitarian wrongs catch her interest—and then some.

“It’s a dual love story,” explains Asante of her film, which finds its dramatic crux in two relationships: Dido and John Davinier, the romantic love; and Dido and Lord Mansfield, the filial love. As she prepped Wilkinson, whom the director calls her “dream actor for the role,” Asante felt it was important to “explain that, for me, I had never seen a white character on screen loving a black child in this way. How important it was to bring that to an audience for the first time.”

The real Lord Mansfield was someone “who, in himself, could have three to five movies made about him on separate, incredible issues.” In Belle, Dido’s emotional transition into womanhood—developing romantic feelings for the first time, feeling the weight of societal pressures and prejudices more acutely than ever before—coincides with an intellectual awakening. (Isn’t that just the way?) Throughout the film, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield struggles to reach a decision on a court case concerning the deaths of over 100 slaves. Slave-traders aboard the slave ship Zong found themselves short on water while traveling to Jamaica, they claim, and thus decided to drown many of their slaves in order to save their lives and those of their crew. When they attempted to collect insurance on the slaves, or property, they lost at sea, however, their insurers balked and sued them. The Zong men drowned their slaves on purpose, the plaintiffs charged, in order to collect the insurance they had taken out on their cargo.

Among the many legal threads knotted together, the Zong case turns on a question of labels it is the responsibility of Lord Mansfield to resolve: Can slaves be considered “cargo”? As Dido becomes increasingly aware of the case particulars and implications, Asante felt it was important for Wilkinson to convey “his love for Dido. But also, his importance as a man who represented someone on the cusp of change. Somebody who had his foot in order, in the status quo, but also somebody who had his foot in the future, in being progressive, and that conflict.”

The character of Davinier, an idealistic aspiring lawyer, is not only instrumental in bringing this conflict to the fore—Davinier plays the progressive firebrand to Lord Mansfield’s stately, well, lord—but in helping explain the case to Dido and the film’s viewers. In order to accomplish both tasks, Asante found herself deviating from the story of the real Dido Belle.

In real life, John Davinier was not a lawyer. “He was actually a valet in Lord Mansfield’s household in Kenwood House. It was important for me to make him a lawyer because this story was so much about the laws that supported slavery that I wanted to be able to juxtapose two points of view in a very intimate fashion.” Through lawyer John, Asante was able to communicate to the audience “what was quite a complicated case. The idea that you could drown your cargo in that period if it endangered the ship, and that included human beings, that included slaves, was a horrible concept, but also a complicated concept to try and communicate in what was essentially a love story.

“And in real life,” Asante continues, adding “and this is the part that really touches me, Dido did not marry John Davinier until after Lord Mansfield died. It appears she did not feel able to marry her husband until she had fulfilled her role completely as his daughter and taken care of him until his death. [That was] why I knew, and I was so secure in the feeling, that they loved each other deeply as father and daughter.”

Belle, first, foremost and ultimately, is a love story. Like the compositional through-line in the portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, which begins at one point only to guide your attention to rest at another, the film’s conflicts concerning the nature of race, of gender and of class come to rest at a final understanding of the nature of love. Though if love, in all its forms, is the most popular of cinematic themes, it is also arguably the most difficult to depict in a manner at once affecting and convincing, and therefore not—that dreaded charge—overly sentimental.

“In some ways you have to allow yourself to be super-romantic when you’re making the movie. In some ways you have to be over-sentimental while you’re shooting the movie, and then you detach when you come to the edit. You know, if you don’t do enough, then you don’t have enough that you can play with,” explains Asante, who “tested the film relatively early on in the editing process and got a lot of feedback from our audience.” Their comments helped, “because I am sentimental.” A Way of Life, Asante’s first film and one that earned her BAFTA’s Carl Foreman Award for most promising newcomer, “is tough and rough, about a female murderer who commits a murder in front of her own baby and in front of the victim’s 14-year-old daughter. There’s over-sentimentality in some ways in that. And it’s something I’m accused of as a filmmaker quite often.”

Although Asante says she is “kind of OK” with being called sentimental (“You can’t please all of the people all of the time”), the label is not only implicitly minimizing but also implicitly gendered. And there is no room for the former when it comes to diversifying the latter in Hollywood, as the oft-touted statistics suggest. In 85 years, only four women have received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, the director of 2012’s “kick-ass” The Hurt Locker, has taken home the prize.

“I mean, it’s tough. There are no two ways about it. And when you look at women of color, you know, I try not to think about it, because it makes me feel like I’m achieving some kind of miracle each day. And I think sometimes if you know what the obstacles are, it can make them more difficult to surmount. So I know they’re there in the back of my head, but I try to pretend they’re not there so it doesn’t seem like an impossible mountain to climb.

“It’s a sad state, and I think it’s sad for film in general. Because when we reduce the variety of people behind the camera and people in front of the camera, when we reduce the lens through which human stories are told, it’s a sad thing for audiences.” Setting aside questions of personal ambition to focus on Belle as a work that is, simply, personal, Asante describes a particular feeling of urgency. “When you look at a film like Belle, which has a black lead and is a period piece, it’s so important that it goes on to do well so that nobody can say, ‘Oh, well, we tried that and it didn’t work.’ So that generations behind me, generations behind Steve McQueen, generations behind filmmakers of color who are out there, can go on, and women filmmakers can continue and change the status quo.”

Asante, who began her career as a child actress on the teen serial-soap “Grange Hill,” has already made significant strides. Her ’90s TV series “Brothers and Sisters” was the first show written by a black woman to air on British television. Although she saw three projects she had been working on since 2004’s A Way of Life collapse in 2009, the filmmaker did not allow herself to become discouraged—“If you do a script and it doesn’t come to fruition, it’s never a wasted period of time, because it always brings you to what you’re going to do next”—and has already secured financial backing for her follow-up to Belle. Where Hands Touch is a World War II drama and “the second part of a three-part trilogy that I want to do on where black people or people of color fit into European history.”

With any luck, Asante will enjoy added company on set. Inspired by a short film she saw at Barnard College’s Athena Film Festival in February, the director has pledged to become more engaged in her attempts to balance the gendered scales of Hollywood. In the “Makers” film by PBS, “a groundbreaking professor [Johnnetta Cole] talks about what she’s doing to try and change the status quo. And that is, to bring a young girl into every project that she does, to pass the baton on. And I thought, wow, I have to do that.

“Now, for every film I make, I will select a young girl, a young woman, whatever color she is, whatever background she stems from, to shadow me.”

While the logistics of her promise have yet to be finalized—she hopes to rally the involvement of organizations such as Women in Film, BAFTA and the BFI, among others—Asante is adamant that “we have a responsibility… You know, that’s all we can do, is not give up. And keep pushing and show that our work is important, our work is relevant, our work can achieve audiences. It’s important that we get the message across, and we do it by doing it.” By doing do it until, having traveled an inevitably meandering road, you come to rest at a point above where you began.

Editor's Note: The above interview neglected to mention the Writers Guild of America-credited screenwriter of Belle, Misan Sagay. We apologize for the oversight. Ms. Sagay has also contacted FJI and is challenging director Amma Assante's account of the genesis of the project.