“You break every rule when it matters enough. I am the evidence.”
The titular character of Amma Asante’s 2013 film spends much of her time looking up at portraits in her great-uncle’s estate. Portraits of white aristocrats with black servants at their side, gazing up at the former in reverence. Black bodies have been used in portraiture as props from as early as the 14th century, to denote the wealth or stature of its subject. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) knows this all too well.
Dido is of illegitimate birth: the product of an affair between a West Indies slave and a British Naval officer. She’s an heiress by title, but the color of her skin makes her a pariah. A paradox. Which is why, when her great-uncle commissions a portrait for Dido and her (white) cousin Elizabeth, her first instinct is to protest. “Do you think he should want to paint me?”
Asante’s work has always defied convention, placing people of color at the center of the period genre. With Belle she took it a step further. “I wanted to prove that you could put a woman of color front and center of an Austen-esque piece of work, a traditional British period drama, and that it would work.” And boy, does it.
Belle is a complex narrative, interweaving elements of romance, coming of age, race and justice. It’s a fairytale for girls who grew up reading Austen’s books and watching film adaptations but didn’t see themselves represented in either. For girls who studied the arts, searching for faces like theirs, skin dark like theirs, and scarcely finding it.
The film is about, among a million other things, the image of the black in Western art, and the toll that said images take. Mbatha-Raw’s “tough-tender” performance reflects the exasperation of fighting for autonomy, for one image that doesn’t depict her as a self-abasing slave. What results is the painting that inspired this film, and, in turn, the abolishment of the slave trade in Britain.