Of the many movies involving slave trade, films like “Belle”, “12 Years a Slave” and “Amistad” attempt to view the atrocities of slavery from the perspective of a slave or, in the case of Belle, an illegitimate daughter of a British nobleman, Admiral Sir John Lindsay (in a brief role by Matthew Goode). Inspired by a 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray, the story looks into who Belle may have been, since few facts about her actually exist today.
In the film, Dido (“Belle”, played by the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (a consistently charming performance by Tom Wilkinson), the highest judge (Lord Chief Justice) in the British Empire and second only to the king in power. Belle’s aristocratic lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her African mother’s status as a slave prevents her from full stature as a noblewoman.
In this historical drama British writer and director Amma Asante has laid the narrative against the backdrop of the infamous legal case involving the Zong massacre (1781) in which more than 140 slaves were drowned in order to obtain compensation for their “human cargo” from the ship’s insurance company. Although the ship owners claimed they had to throw the slaves overboard in order to save the crew and the ship, and also because of a shortage of drinking water, the insurance company refused to pay, claiming that there was insufficient evidence to prove that drowning was unavoidable. Without the ship’s logs, the insurance company placed the burden of proof on the ship owners to show evidence that the slaves’ deaths were necessary. With Dido Belle as the beloved daughter of his nephew, the personal becomes political as the Chief Justice develops his position on Britain’s slave trade. At court Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s decision leads to the end of slavery in Great Britain in The Slave Trade Act of 1807 (almost sixty years before the US formally abolishes slave trade in 1865).
“Belle” is a very moving personal account of a freewoman’s innocence in the face of the pervasive racist realities around her and her courageous confrontation with societal forces, which refuse to accept her the way she wants to be. A wonderful cinematic narrative about a little-known episode in history and well worth watching, although fiction enters into the tale of “Belle”.
[“Belle” is now playing in theaters. Another retelling of this legal case can be seen in Season 2, Episode 1 of “Garrow’s Law” (see my review of December 11, 2012), available on Netflix.]