Some Stories Need No Embellishment: BELLE, a film by Amma Asante
It is 1769 and on a busy dock, workers are jostling to unload a ship at anchor. This is the age of exploration; Captain Cook is already part-way through his first voyage to ‘discover’ the islands of the South Pacific. It is also the age of slavery.
Amidst this activity, we see a pristinely attired, white British naval officer talking with a young mixed-race girl. He tells her, ‘I am here to take you to a good life, a life that you were born to’. This naval officer is in fact her father, and soon after we see her transplanted from this dockside setting to the opulence of a country mansion where she is left in the care of her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, and his wife. The young girl, Dido Belle - it is explained - is to be a companion for her cousin, Elizabeth, also entrusted to the couple’s care. They appear to dote on the girls; theirs is a life of comfort and culture, shared experience and social ease.
Time passes and it is 1783. Dido and Elizabeth are as close as sisters, constantly together, beautifully dressed and accomplished young ladies, but even the family tread carefully when the question of Dido’s place in society is raised; Dido dines with them only when they do not have company, calling into question what ‘her place’ really is. Her skin colour is both a curiosity and something to conceal. She is shielded from the outside world and from the opinions of society, and yet helps her great-uncle – who happens to be the Lord Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – with his filing and paperwork. She is a lady of the household, but is told she will not ‘come out’ and be introduced to young men of marriageable age, while Elizabeth will. These details highlight the disparity between the girls’ social standing, and yet by virtue of an inheritance left to her by her father, it is Dido who receives the first marriage proposal.
When Dido’s great-uncle takes on a law student, John Davinier, everything changes. He questions every established convention to justify Dido’s place in the Mansfield family. Through the eyes of Davinier’s character, the director asks us to explore racial and gender equality as the ‘foundation of everything.’ We observe the growing friction between established polite, aristocratic society and the changing attitudes of Dido and Elizabeth as they become aware of their own part in it. John’s principles and his opinion of an appeal brought before Lord Mansfield provide the dramatic tension of the plot, because he is the messenger who tells Dido of the fate of the slave ship Zong, whose owners tried to claim insurance cover against the loss of the enslaved people they massacred, throwing them overboard when the ship ran low on water after navigational issues. Dido comes to the heart-breaking realisation that ‘those that I most resemble,’ were nothing but a commodity, whose market value was to be decided in court. For Lord Mansfield, ruling on this case becomes more than transactional. He is forced to look at his ‘much-loved’ great-niece and see in her those that were murdered, and the film forces us to do the same.
The phrase ‘what is right can never be impossible,’ is a recurring theme throughout the film. It stresses the importance of the power Lord Mansfield holds, and the unique family dynamic; it underlines the determination of the central characters to effect change, and crucially, it declares that change is always possible. And yet, the scriptwriter has essentially crafted a romance, for Dido and John ‘see beyond the differences of circumstance’ and with a true meeting of minds and hearts, discover feelings for one another. A determined Dido pleads their case and the final scene depicts Lord Mansfield assenting to their union. It is a beautiful, tender and sensitive film, but this is the point that it all falls apart for me.
Because, if a story is based upon real-life I tend to fact check – I want to know what really happened. And in the case of Dido Belle, the two stories, real and fictional, diverge significantly. Paula Byrne’s book Belle, the true story of Dido Belle, published the year after the film’s release, paints a very different picture - and certainly not one that is well-resolved. John Davinier was Dido’s husband, but he wasn’t a lawyer - he was a steward to the successor of Lord Mansfield; it’s unlikely the two men ever even met. Dido was an heiress, but she only continued to live in the family home until Lord Mansfield’s death in 1793, (more than ten years after the film was set) at which point she was made homeless by the rest of the family. With few options, she married the real-life Davinier less than a year later, taking up residence in a small house in Pimlico.
Dido’s is an important true story. She contributed to the changing attitudes that eventually abolished the slave trade, but her ‘fairy tale’ life of comfort and ease ended when she married, though the film would have us believe that it was her happily- ever- after. In reality, her position within the family – and thus her role in history – ended when Lord Mansfield died. At that point, she became a millstone, possibly even an embarrassment: an unmarried woman who, because of her skin colour, (and her illegitimacy) was pushed once more to the margins of society.
This begs the question: surely the filmmakers have a responsibility to honour Dido’s truth? I so wanted to believe that Dido went from a loving, protective family to a loving husband and happy home life, but that wasn’t her lived reality. Instead, the character of Dido, and the racial prejudice she is subject to, and gradually becomes aware of, is used as a vehicle. The fictional iteration implies that because she stands up for herself, she is rewarded by being allowed to marry the man she wants. Neatly marrying her off ignores all the complicated threads her existence wove together, suggesting that the scriptwriters didn’t quite know what Dido’s place was either. Racism is used as a plot device, an obstacle that Dido must overcome to get her happy ending. This implies that the racially-charged marginalisation experienced by Dido is something she can put behind her, resolved by her marriage and the abolition of the slave trade, rather than a prevailing social reality.
In both the film and real life, Dido Belle was an anomaly, a mixed-race woman at the heart of one of the most powerful families in the late Eighteenth century; her very presence in their midst went against every convention of polite society because it forced an acknowledgment of the power dynamic between the owner and the enslaved, between white and black people, between Dido and her family, shoving the relationship of racial domination right under the noses of the aristocracy at a time when the slave trade happened far away, on the high seas and abroad - and could thus be overlooked. As Dido the character says, “I am the evidence.” How must she have felt knowing her very presence was the cause of such tumultuous, uncomfortable debate? This legacy surely deserves truth and not simplistic romanticising.
What are the politics of altering Dido’s reality, when her truth is such an important one, and her story so unique? What are the politics of ‘resolving’ the issue of Dido’s marginalisation with a romantic happy ending? In embellishing Dido’s story into a neat romantic fiction, it feels like the script writers chose to allow its viewers to leave the cinema in comfort, to feel that the issues of race, class, and gender that the film throws up have long been resolved. Dido’s real life was dictated by social convention, and the manipulation of her story in this way ironically mirrors that, because the film consciously avoids the upset of accountability. Just as Dido’s agency was limited when she was alive, so too is her legacy.
This film, though beautiful, fails to tell the truth of a story that needed no embellishment, it loses sight of the reality of Dido’s life by dressing it up in the finery of the aristocracy; the same polite society that marginalised Dido for the colour of her skin.
Diane has a background in the theatre and television which translates to a lifetime fascination with film and a particular soft spot for historic dramas. She works as an interior designer and will be starting a Masters in Architectural Conservation in September.