From Painting to Screen
The spark for BELLE began in an unlikely place: with a painting (see above)
that caught the eye of writer Misan Sagay, who had adapted Zora Neale Hurston's
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" into an award-winning miniseries presented by
Oprah Winfrey. While touring Scone Palace at the University of St. Andrews in
Scotland, Sagay noticed the painting which ultimately inspired the film. 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.
"The black woman [Dido Elizabeth Belle] in the painting was not named in the
House Guide, so I did some further research to find the two women were actually
relatives," says Sagay. "As a writer and a black woman I was dedicated to
finding these stories of other black women in a time when they had little
voice." In what can only be described as serendipitous, Sagay discovered that
her son's Godmother was a friend of Lady Mansfield, the 8th removed descendant
of the character from the film, and from there the archives were opened,
allowing Sagay to unlock the mysteries of the relationship between the two
friends knows as "Belle and Bette".
As Sagay went through mounds of Mansfield family research, she learned that
"Belle" was 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.
Producer Damian Jones, an avid lover of art, had also come across the painting.
An early script draft of Sagay's came to his attention and he later met with her
through a mutual friend. "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."
The tale was riveting and the more Jones read Sagay's fascinating tale 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. Adds Sagay,
"From the [Mansfield] 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."
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. With BFI
on board to help finance the film, Jones was ready to begin production.
To get Asante's attention, Jones sent the director a postcard of the painting
along with Sagay's script, 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."
"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
Sagay. "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
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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