Quick pop quiz –name the last time you saw an epic Black female biopic on the big screen? Since Angela Bassett’s Oscar-nominated “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” Black women’s stories seem to be almost invisible. But with the arrival of “Belle,” director Amma Asante has finally given us a heroine worth rooting for.
“Belle” is based on the incredibly true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an 18th Century Royal Navy Admiral and a former slave. When her mother dies, Belle is raised by her uncle and aunt, the Lord and Lady Mansfield. While Belle is raised with all the wealth and benefits of privilege of her station, she is rejected by London high society because of her skin color. When Belle meets the handsome and dashing John Davinier (Sam Reid), the beautiful aristocrat begins a journey of self-love and political activism when Davinier tells her about the horrifying Zong Massacre- 134 slaves thrown overboard a slave ship in order to collect on the insurance money. Belle learns to accept her mixed race heritage and her stance to stand on the right side of history will influence her uncle to bring an end to slavery in England.
The Urban Daily sat down with Asante and lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw to discuss the making of the film, why Belle’s story is relevant to the history of slavery and why this year just might be the “Year of The Black Woman.”
TUD: How much did you know about the transatlantic slave trade growing up in England?
Amma Asante: I think I knew a good amount. I’m at that age where I saw “Roots” from a very young age. My sister was quite political as a young woman; she was reading some pretty grown up stuff at 16 years old. So I knew quite a lot. What I did not know – what I learned from my research coming to telling this story and creating this story is that you could make money through killing human beings. I knew you could make money through selling them. What my stomach still can’t cope with is that you could kill them for the insurance money.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I knew nothing really. At school we didn’t study it, and in the UK, I guess it’s such a different cultural legacy from the U.S. For me, it wasn’t taught in schools when I was there. I remember seeing “Amistad,” Steven Spielberg’s film. That was one of the first films I’d seen that explored the Middle Passage crossing and that whole concept of the slave trade. So for me, finding out about the Zong case and the real history behind it was really intriguing and I thought why don’t we know about this? This is a story that needs to be told, especially from Belle’s perspective. A story told through a woman’s eyes and a woman of color who is not being brutalized. She is actually educated and inspiring and I just thought it was a very refreshing voice to tell a story from.
The film tackles so many weighty topics like racism, classism and sexism. What was the challenge in balancing all these themes and still produce a compelling drama?
Amma: For me it was about the painting of Belle and her cousin Elizabeth, and when I looked at it, I saw a combination of politics, art and history. That was the starting point of intertwining those three things. Then you bring in identity, gender, race and the idea of where one belongs then some more detailed thematic questions. It was about starting from the beginning and layering each one of those topics almost as if they were characters in themselves, and feeding them through from beginning to end, and taking those themes on their own journey.
If you look at Belle as the tree trunk, everything else are the branches that come stem from her. All of the people in her life represent themes that have to do with her story. Elizabeth represents the gender issue, Davinier represents the moral issue and Lady Mansfield represents the maternal issue. It was constantly balancing the micro and the macro – the big themes with a capital T versus the smaller themes with a little t.
One of my favorite scenes is when Belle is having trouble combing her hair and the Black housekeeper, Mabel, shows her how to do it correctly. How did that scene come about?
Amma: It came about because I was thinking about the legacy of maternal love and what our mothers pass on to us. What happens when you live in a world where the woman who is taking care of you doesn’t look anything like you? I was also thinking about the things we take for granted in a way, the things that our mother’s teach us. What is the thing that is fundamental to us as women of color? It’s our hair, and from a very young age we are taught how to deal with our hair and it usually comes from a mother or an aunt or someone who is very close to you. My niece is of mixed race. Her mother is White but couldn’t teach her that because she didn’t have that experience, so it came from my brother. So my brother is teaching this six year old girl to comb her hair, showing her to start from the ends. Watching my brother and his daughter made me think, “I want to express this experience so the girls of colors in the audience will understand it on a very surface basic level.” But also on a deeper level this is about maternal legacy. That’s why Belle is so sad because even though Mabel may be lower than her in status, Mabel had her mother You can’t put a value on that.
Gugu, as a biracial child being raised by a White mother could you relate to Belle’s hair struggles?