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Meet 'Belle,' One of Britain's Earliest Known Biracial Aristocrats

Amanda Bell
·Contributor
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In Fox Searchlight's new period drama "Belle," we learn the unique true story of the eponymous Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. Dido Belle, for short, was one of the first multiracial members of 18th century England's aristocracy and the apparent catalyst for a landmark legal decision on the nation's treatment of slaves.

Dido Belle (played in the film by English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was born of an affair between a British naval officer named Sir John Lindsay and an African slave woman named Maria Belle in the late 1700s. While such a coupling was not uncommon, her recognition as a member of his elite bloodline proved very unusual for the time. Rarer still, her complicated heritage would prove to have an enormous influence upon the political climate of slavery in England.

Director Amma Asante's film chronicles the breadth of Dido's life as a gentlewoman, beginning with Capt. Lindsay (Matthew Goode) imploring his titled uncle — the Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) — to accept her into his home and give the girl a life befitting of her father's lineage.

"What is right can never be impossible," Lindsay insists above his uncle's initial protestations.

Lord Mansfield and his wife (Emily Watson) ultimately did take Dido in to raise alongside her Caucasian cousin in their stately Kenwood House manor. Later, Dido Belle's relationship with her great-uncle would be thought to inspire his judicial decree that an escaped slave living in England could not be removed from the country against his will. The judgment proved paramount to the worldwide movement to abolish slavery.

For Asante, the intrigue of "Belle," her first directorial effort in a decade, is this narrative of affection triumphing over even the most constrictive social paradigms.

"So much of this story is about love and courage," said Asante. "I like to think that sometimes love and courage are enough for the right thing to float to the surface."

Screenwriter Misan Sagay, meanwhile, sees that there is also a more specific significance to be drawn from the story of Dido Belle: that there is a vast underexplored history of black people in England that is ripe for cinematic story-plucking.

"I think it's very important that when we look at the history of Britain that we realize black people have been here, we're not new," Sagay explained. "Going back here 200 years, there were black people in all different walks of life, all levels of society, who've been here for a very long time."

Indeed, while the subject of black history in America is of ever-sharpening interest in modern film — last year's crop included pictures as diverse as "12 Years a Slave," "42," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," and "Fruitvale Station" — the British black experience has been largely under serviced in movies.

[Related: '12 Years a Slave' Underscores Scourge of Modern Slavery]

As Oxford-based actor David Oyelowo, known for his work in Hollywood pictures such as "Lincoln" and "Jack Reacher," acutely explained to The Guardian, "Up until now, the British film industry has said: 'There isn't an audience for black films. We don't have the actors. Black doesn't travel.

"When I went to British film investors with stories of the black experience in a historical context," Oyelowo continued, "I was told verbatim: 'We're looking for Dickens or Austen. Your story is a hard sell.'"

(Perhaps not coincidentally, in the above video Asante specifically described her "Belle" as partially in the vein of a Jane Austen romance.)

As Sagay, Oyelowo, and others suggested, there are scant British films centered on the black experience.

Prior to the mid-'70s, many of the pictures couldn't overcome the baggage of the country's entrenched class system and cultural affectations. It wasn't until Horace Ové's 1976 film "Pressure" that the U.K.'s cinematic scene produced a proper Black British Film, and even that now-classic picture was shelved for several years due to its perceived controversial message about police handling of certain black communities.

Since then, there have been decades of a "cycle of frustration" in producing films that managed to accurately capture the black experience in England.

But Asante sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

"I think audiences are only just beginning to recognize that black stories are universal," Asante told The Guardian last fall, as "Belle" debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival alongside "12 Years" and "Mandela."

[Related: Winners of the 2014 British Academy Film Awards]

"It's still hard," Asante added, "but it means we're better able to convince film investors we're not just telling niche stories with narrow concerns."

"Belle," which also stars Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson, and Sam Reid, hits theaters on May 2.