“Belle”–Ringing for Justice




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.]


“Garrow’s Law”–The Gallows of a Hanging Court

I recently discovered a lesser known BBC series, Garrow’s Law (2009-2012), and highly recommend this superb British period drama based upon the life of 18th-century lawyer William Garrow. As the  barrister who demanded that the accused was  “innocent until proven guilty,” Garrow became the Perry Mason for the poor and unjustly accused.

But the extraordinary story of William Garrow might never have been dramatized had it not been for the online publication of the Old Bailey Proceedings (1674-1913) in 2008. (The Old Bailey is a reference to the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales). The historical legal cases are spellbinding.  From rape and burglary to murder, high treason and corruption, each episode begins with the accused being unable to afford defense counsel and not expecting justice.  Garrow and his mentor John Southouse work to uncover the truth, through rigorous cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, paving the way for habeas corpus and the modern legal system.

Thief-takers,  heinous opportunists  who were a byproduct of  the “kangaroo courts” of Garrow’s day, were private individuals much like bounty hunters, who paid others to steal and then either extorted money from the thief or brought him to the court to receive a fee for every guilty verdict.  Thief-takers play a key role in many of the court cases argued in front of a minefield of corrupt judges, witnesses, and jurors.

A major subplot running through the series concerns Garrow’s relationship with Lady Sarah Hill, an aristocratic figure with an interest in justice and the law. Lady Sarah’s husband is Sir Arthur Hill, an important politician and member of the government whose values diverge dramatically from Lady Sarah’s. 

The superb cast members (Andrew Buchan as William Garrow, Alun Armstrong as Southouse, Lyndsey Marshal as Lady Sarah, and Rupert Graves as Sir Arthur Hill) are all familiar to us from many BBC productions.  This series belongs among the very best that television has to offer! Garrow’s Law will satisfy a craving for stories both intimate and political. What makes the series particularly compelling is that each defendant seems doomed almost certainly to either execution or to a very long prison sentence. How Garrow overcomes what seems like insurmountable odds has us cheering passionately for justice for the accused. This BBC series should attract those interested in a delectable treat:  justice for those least likely to receive it.