I love a movie that combines real history with period elegance, powerful themes, and a good romance, and Belle is such a movie. It's based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an 18th century woman of mixed blood. Her mother Maria Belle was an African born slave in the West Indies, but her father was a British naval officer, Captain John Lindsey, who eventually became an admiral.
After her mother's death, Dido's father took her to England and put her into the keeping of his uncle, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, perhaps the most influential judge in Britain.. I first came across Lord Mansfield when I was researching A Distant Magic, my historical/fantasy/romance that was built around the 18th century British abolition movement. Lord Mansfield was probably the most notable British jurist of the century, and he was influential in two court cases that helped toward the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.
Lord Mansfield and his wife were childless and they lovingly raised their two grandnieces, Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Mansfield, whose mother had died. Using a framework of the known historical facts, director and writer Amma Assante (whose parents were from Ghana) spins a tale of what it was like to be a mixed race girl raised among British aristocrats.
I'm sure some liberties were taken for the sake of the story, but it all works beautifully. I like the contrast of the mixed blood but well dowered Dido with her beautiful but penniless cousin. Both want loving marriages, which aren't easy to find. (Yes, there's a happy ending, I wouldn't recommend a movie otherwise!)
The movie incorporates a famous portrait of Dido and her cousin. It was commissioned by Lord Mansfield, and it's unusual in that it's probably the first portrait that portray a mixed blood figure and a European one on the same sight lines–essentially, it shows them as equals. (Though Dido is shown in more exotic costume.)
Much of the power of Belle comes from weaving Dido's story in with one of the two great legal decisions involving slavery made by Lord Mansfield: the Zong Massacre, one of the great horrors of the infamous Middle Passage.
The movie is very well cast, with Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield and Miranda Richardson as his wife. The central role of Dido is played by British actress Gugu Mbatha Raw, who is herself of mixed blood. The film received numerous award nominations and a number of wins.
Have you seen BELLE? Would you like to? It's a lovely real life historical romance that's well worth hunting out. What are your favorite historically based movies? One of my favorites is Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, the great legislator and reformer who worked tirelessly for decades to end the slave trade. What are some great ones?