Dido Elizabeth Belle is a paradox: she is both a black woman and a member of the 18th century aristocracy. The mere image of her elicits a double-take; we are not accustomed to seeing women of colour in such opulent period dress; it goes against our sense of historical accuracy and the understood precepts of class and status of the time period. And yet there she is in Belle, deftly portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, staring you down from the promotional image: a confident, black, 18th century gentlewoman. Her posture is regal, her exquisite dress complements her skin tone, and her expression dares you to question her presence. This image captures the film’s dual position, celebrating Dido’s status whilst simultaneously pointing to the unlikeliness of her situation.
After Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) rescues his illegitimate and mixed-race daughter from a tenement following the death of her mother, he escorts her to his family’s stately home. His uncle, The Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of England (Tom Wilkinson), takes in Dido, albeit reluctantly, while Lindsay returns to his duties in the Navy. Dido Belle is brought up as an aristocratic companion to her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Although Dido is beloved by her family, she occupies an anomalous position: she has status, wealth, education and poise, but she does not share the same rights as her pureblood British born peers. Indeed, she is not even permitted to dine with her own family.
Screenwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante were both inspired by a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle, painted by Johann Zoffany in 1779. The film uses the painting of this striking portrait as a narrative device. In one of Belle‘s earliest scenes, young Dido (Lauren Julien-Box) is shown to be in awe of the family portraits in Lord Mansfield’s estate, some of which feature black people in postures of abject subservience. Later, when Dido discovers that she is to appear in the portrait with her cousin Elizabeth, she cannot fully contain her dread and anxiety: she believes that she will be represented as her cousin’s doting servant despite her commensurate status and the genuine love and respect that her family clearly feels for her.
At the heart of the film lies Dido’s awakening to the atrocities of slavery, and her realisation that the racism she faces is a fundamental part of a mindset that treats black people not as people but as property. This film neatly points out that not all racism is fueled by hate. This is exhibited within the structure of the Jane Austen-esque romantic plot, when Dido is approached by an ostensibly nice gentleman who objectifies her based on her exotic appearance and views her blackness as something to overlook. Threaded through with social commentary on the status of women in 18th century England, the film draws explicit parallels between the position of slaves and the position of women in that period; neither have agency and both are treated as the property of wealthy white men. Dido remarks to her cousin Elizabeth that a woman with her own fortune looking for a prominent husband would be like a “free negro who begs for a master”.
Perhaps as a result of being written by a black woman and directed by a black woman, this film avoids falling into the stereotypical white saviour trope employed by popular films. Belle highlights how singular Dido is not only by circumstance, but also by way of her personality. She might have the status of a gentlewoman, wealth in her own right, and the ear of the Lord Chief Justice, but she also has the perspective of an oppressed person of colour, and the intelligence, empathy and conviction it takes to be an agent of change.