Belle is a brilliant lens through which to view the historical struggle for human equality. However it does us no favours when it hides the real history of those at the forefront of that fight.
Belle claims to be inspired by the true story of a mulatto woman born into the British upper class of the 18th century by virtue of having a noble for a father and a slave for a mother. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dido Elizabeth Murray, the half-caste woman who comes to inherit both her father’s last name and estate, along with her mother’s dark skin. However, though Dido cannot sit down at the dinner table, her position in the Earl of Mansfield’s house places her at the heart of the slavery debate because her guardian also happens to be the Lord Chief Justice of England. Mansfield is in the process of deciding a vital point of law that could threatens to bankrupt the British slave trade. What follows is a clever interweaving of Dido’s struggle for a place in society, her right to love a young, idealistic law clerk and her witnessing of a crushing blow to slavery.
Belle is a compelling tale with an enviable cast – Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton – that manages to deliver the gravity of the greater issue while preserving the appeal of Dido’s personal story. But though the film is based on real person there is very little in it that lines up with the true Dido Elizabeth Belle. She did live at the Mansfield home, but she did not inherit her father’s name or become an heiress. Nor did she marry a visionary law clerk, dedicated to abolishing the slave trade – actually, a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman’s steward. And her influence on the Lord Chief Justice’s eventual decisions is pure speculation. But probably the greatest liberties are those the film takes with the battle against slavery itself.
Belle works hard to put forward a purely rational argument for the abolishment of slavery, without wondering where those morals come from. History records that Lord Mansfield’s cautious rulings against slavery reflected the Age of Enlightenment but the film eliminates any positive mention of the God-fearing politicians, churchmen and Christian women of standing who were the engine of abolition. In fact it presents Dido’s mythical law-student lover as the son of a clergyman who has come to the conclusion that ‘religion need not be the only guardian of our morality’:
“Where my father studies the church, I choose to study the law. It is by that I wish to change the world.”
The film certainly hints at the horrors of the slave trade but Belle’s saddest content is this attempt to drive a wedge between 18th century English morality and the God who gave it force. Legendary abolitionists like William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Heyrick and John Newton strove to eliminate the slave trade because they believed first and foremost in a Creator who had made all men and women equal. The strangeness, then, of trying to separate God from the legal system He inspired people to create seems to be more of a reflection of the current antithesis towards religion. In short, Belle makes for a beautiful story, but only half a story.
Release Date: May 8