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From Painting to Screen
The spark for BELLE began in an unlikely place: with a painting (see above) that caught the eye of producer Damian Jones. Created in 1779, the painting is unsigned but historians believe it is most likely by Zoffany, the renowned portraitist of Britain's rich and royal. This unusual piece depicts two beautifully-outfitted girls, one black, one white, seemingly at leisure together. Both peer out at the viewer, the black girl smiling impishly with a finger to her cheek, while the other, resting from her book, absent-mindedly takes her companion's arm.

"I came upon the painting while visiting Kenwood House in North London," says Jones. "I was astonished to see this completely ambiguous portrait of a stunning black woman and a stunning white woman. Were they friends? Were they sisters? Was one a servant? You couldn't tell. They're touching, there's a wry smile . . . it was fascinating. I think it's fair to say most portraits of the period do not feature black people, unless they're obviously servants or slaves. So I wanted to delve deeper."

Jones came to learn that the woman smiling coquettishly in the painting is Dido Elizabeth Belle, perhaps the only example of a bi-racial society lady in Georgian England, and a woman who had to fight to find her place in a world where she was a groundbreaker in every way. After all, in 1779, the British Empire's economy was centered on the slave trade, despite increasingly vocal calls to end it as a moral abomination -- and less than 1/3 of London's black population was free. Dido Belle was born into controversy, as the illegitimate daughter of John Lindsay, a Royal Navy captain, and an African woman who was likely a slave in the West Indies (though little is known about her, except that her name was Maria Belle). Rather than ignore his illicit daughter, the seafaring Lindsay asked her childless Great Uncle -- none other than Lord Mansfield, the renowned legal genius and Lord Chief Justice of England -- and his wife to raise Dido at Kenwood House, their grand home in the country. There, she become the companion of her half-cousin, the Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose father also left her in Lord and Lady Mansfield's care after her mother died. The two familial outcasts grew up together at Kenwood and come out into society just as London was seized by a growing movement to abolish the British slave trade for good.

The tale was riveting and the more Jones read about Dido, the more he felt she was a historical character film audiences would be fascinated to meet. "Dido's story is about class, race, money, marriage -- all elements of the human condition still very relevant today," he notes.

He engaged screenwriter Misan Sagay, who had adapted Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" for television, to explore Dido's life further. She, too, was taken aback by her first look at Dido Belle in the painting.

She dove into research, finding the original hand-written legal notebooks of Lord Mansfield in Scotland's Scone Palace and scouring them for mentions of Dido. "From the diaries I began to get an idea of who was who in the household of Kenwood House at that time and it was quite clear that Dido was not a slave. She was a member of the household," she observes.

Still, precious little factual material could be found about Dido's day-to-day life as she came of age and ultimately married a man named John Davinier. "It was such a great story -- but it was also one where you weren't tied by known history, because there wasn't very much," says Sagay. Meanwhile, Jones already had a director in mind: BAFTA award winner and the London Film Festival Alfred Dunhill UK Film Talent Award winner Amma Asante, who had so impressed him with her 2004 debut, A WAY OF LIFE. An unflinching story of a white teen mother who becomes involved in a violent racist attack, the film stood out for the far-ranging compassion in Asante's storytelling. Jones suspected Asante would take an original approach to Dido Belle's life.

To get Asante's attention, Jones sent the director a postcard of the painting, and it worked. Seeing the image lit a match with her. "It's really an outstanding piece of art and it's unusual because it's clear the two girls are equals," says Asante. "It was one of the first paintings in England that we know of to depict a person of color next to a white person. So I was quite intrigued. The painting offered a nugget of history, a story that has never been told."

As Asante began working on the film, she wanted to put Dido's story front and center. "I wanted to make it clear this was Dido's story," she says. "I wanted to give her an arc where she goes from being unsure of who she is to discovering her own individual power."

Asante put at the heart of that journey a defiant romance with John Davinier, a man beneath Dido's social station yet who inspires her to stand up for who she really is. In reality, almost nothing is known about Davinier's life, or his love for Dido, though it has been surmised that he was at one time a steward at Kenwood House. Asante, on the other hand, envisioned him as a brilliant, budding legal student, and the catalyst who opens Dido's eyes to her past and the possibilities of a different future.

"Dido has such a complex identity -- she is this combination of black and white, of being rich and coming from a very poor background. I saw her as a girl who grows into a woman by falling in love, and by falling in love, she learns the information that allows to her to become a woman," says the director. "Through her journey with John, she comes to learn who she is, where she fits in, what she wants out of life -- it's a beautiful story of two lovers finding themselves in the other."

But love is no simple matter in Dido's world, especially when her status as an heiress due to her inheritance becomes publicly known, resulting in an offer of marriage from a landed gentleman that Lord and Lady Mansfield find irresistible. Asante found it fascinating, and ironic, that it is Dido, and not her white, seemingly more advantaged relative Lady Elizabeth Murray, who winds up with the wealth that made a woman highly sought-after in marriage. "Elizabeth is not an heiress and Dido is, and so that turns the story on its head slightly," muses Asante. "It is the mixed-race character, the one who you would least expect to have money and a dowry, who becomes the character of financial worth."

Though Dido is grateful for the security of her inheritance, the true worth she seeks is to be equal in the eyes of society, the law and her loved ones. As she falls in love with John Davinier, she is drawn into his circle of abolitionists working to legally bring a permanent end to the scourge of slavery -- and she awakens to that part of her identity that has long been discussed only in hushed tones.

While Dido's love story emerged mostly from the imagination, it entwines with one of the most impactful trials in world history -- the Zong slave ship trial, in which Lord Mansfield had the power in his hands to either uphold or strike a fatal blow against the British slave trade. For Asante, the way Dido's wistful romance collides with the challenges of the real world is what allows BELLE to speak powerfully to our times, even amidst the fun flirtations and frills of a costume drama. "The love story may be what draws people in initially, but I like the idea that audiences will leave the cinema with a whole lot more," she concludes.

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