“Speaking as a mixed-race woman in 2013, there aren’t many historical stories about people like me. When people think of ‘dual heritage,’ they think it’s a modern concept, but really it’s not. So the fact that Dido was a pioneer of her time is amazing to me and I wanted to do justice to her. Her story needs to be known.”
The voice of the actor Gugu Mbutu-Raw star of Belle, the costume-drama film with a story of aristocracy, romance, race, enslavement and abolition at its core and which opens across UK cinemas Today from Friday 13 June.
I will say quickly here, I loved the film (though I hate the trailer) and cried, with recognition, at many points throughout. Mbutu-Raw is undoubtedly a superb actor (although I find the constant focus by reviewers on her beauty slightly demeaning to her and carrying a whiff of objectification about it) and the director Amma Asante has brought to her excellent ensemble cast and imagined story – after all we know little of the real Dido Belle – a visual emotion that feels sensitive and restrained yet revelatory.
TV Collective was given special access at the film preview in London this week and I attended with a sense of great anticipation. After all this was a film based on a painting (attributed to Zoffany), a poster version of which (featuring Elizabeth Dido Belle only) has hung in my home for the past 30 years. I had never enquired into the image – simply assuming it to be a typical painting of the ‘black exotic’ which became very fashionable in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries.
For me the painting of the two cousins was never a depiction of equal relationships as many have claimed. Yes it is true that unlike other portraits of the time, both the subjects look out at the viewer. In usual servant/owner depictions the servant gazes adoringly at the master or mistress who is allowed to look directly at the viewer. As David Dabydeen the social historian says “This is a rare event in British portraiture. Black people (almost always servants or slaves) are made to look up to their white masters and mistresses, who invariably ignore their gaze, looking out to the viewer instead”.
Nonetheless it contains for me all the tropes of visual racism. The white girl holds a book while the black girl holds fruit. Books symbolised Western knowledge, learning and intelligence (intelligence being something Africans were not meant to possess) while fruit symbolises fertility, earthiness and an awareness that is closer to animal instinct than intellectual ability. The irony is that in real life Dido Belle was much more intellectually gifted than her white cousin.
Before I watched the film I decided in advance that I would hate it. I didn’t like the racial loneliness of Dido in the preview clips, the lack of other black faces. In addition I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on both enslavement and the ‘mixed race’ experience, having editorially overseen the BBC’s Slave Trade Abolition commemoration (2007) and its Mixed Race Season (2011). I approached the film with the repressed anger of a mixed race woman today, ready to fire my bullets at what I felt was going to be a ‘tragic mulatta trope’ . Instead I found myself weeping almost from scene to scene. From the moment Dido Belle is unable to comb her own hair owing to a lack of black female role models, to the self-harm and momentary desire to fit in with the white people around her to – finally – her realisation that she is black (albeit with a white aristocratic father) and that the only way she is going to survive will be to embrace her blackness and join the fight against oppression and inequality. Each moment for me carried echoes of contemporary life in the 21st century. And yes it’s also a costume drama with romance at its heart. I totally related to Belle’s reactions to the white lover who is ‘prepared’ to marry her ‘despite’ her black mother. I like the way Asante brings a black character with a Welsh accent into Belle’s sphere to symbolise how slavery touched every part of the UK not just London. But I would have liked to see more black men involved in the abolitionist story threaded through the film as we know so many helped to drive this in and around London’s coffee houses. There is the merest hint of black men when Lord Mansfield makes his famous (slightly nebulous) statement about the Zong case but they seem to be recipients of white abolitionist fervour rather than, as we know they were, critical movers in the anti-slavery movement of the time. I wept to see a mixed race woman at the heart of a story. Usually we are the side show either in white films or films about black people. The last time I saw a mixed girl at the centre of a film who was being mixed race (as opposed to simply being a mixed race actor playing a studiedly neutral non-racial role) was on Channel 4s Brown Babies decades ago. And even then the African American element didn’t appeal to me as I didn’t relate to the US GI theme.
And that’s the other thing about this film. This is no Twelve Years a Slave. It is so utterly British. So Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice with questions about race and gender as its cornerstones. Amma Asante, through some clever direction and editing reminds us that in the 18th century the idea of black Africans as mere chattel or property was not a huge leap for a white patriarchal society. After all women too were the chattel and property of their husbands. I was also interested in how she as a black woman (British born of Ghanaian heritage) had accessed the ‘mixedness’ of Dido Belle. She explained “that scene where Belle self-harms in front of a mirror? That was me in my own bedroom in South London when I was around Belle’s age. I had been subjected to racial abuse ever since I could remember”. And the hair thing? “My brother has mixed race children and when I held my own mixed race family as babies in my arms I realised that there were added issues for them that were different even from my own experience as a British African woman. However I know that feeling of ‘not belonging anywhere’. I’ve experienced it not just as a black person of African heritage in Britain but also as a woman of Ghanaian heritage not quite fitting in to Ghanaian society either. I used that emotion to power the story of identity for Belle too’
Asante agrees it is easier to bring stories to screen (ie raise funding and support) of enslavement and servitude if those stories are based on ‘true’ narratives. She points out that readers and audiences have always embraced stories drawn from real life in any genre. She thinks it’s particularly true of enslavement because many white people just wouldn’t believe these stories if we weren’t able to say ‘look this really happened’. She disagrees that women directors are pushed into softer narratives pointing out that her first film A Way of Life (2004) was actually quite violent and based around a female killer and that directors like Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty are also becoming more usual. Amma Asante’s next film is Unforgettable for Warner Bros.
Belle opens across the UK on Friday 13 June. Go and see it!
Chantal Benjamin- Badjie is a freelance publicist and writer. Her career has included stints as a sales executive in Sierra Leone, a press officer for London councils and over 20 years in press, pr, project management and diversity at the BBC. She left the BBC in 2013 and is currently press and media officer for The TV Collective.