Belle – slave to ideological fashion
Director Amma Asante
This is a straightforward propaganda film in the politically correct interest, the particular interest being that of racial prejudice and slavery. It is the latest in a slew of such films over the past few years, most notably Django Unchained, Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave. More generally, it is an example of the well-practiced trick of taking of a black person from history and elevating them way beyond their importance simply because they are black – the attempt to place Mary Seacole on a par with Florence Nightingale comes to mind.
Belle is set in the middle of the eighteenth century and is based extremely loosely on a true story, the looseness being aided by the fact that information about Dido is very scanty, resting almost entirely on entries in the accounts of the house in which she is raised (Kenwood House in Hampstead) and diary entries made by the one-time Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson who was a guest in 1789.
The story told in the film is this. Around 1764 the Lord Chief Justice of England, the Earl of Mansfield, takes into his household a very young mixed-race girl, Dido Belle. She is the bastard child of a slave, Mary Belle, and Mansfield’s nephew, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). The girl is legally a slave by birth, but is treated as a freewoman once she is in England. Rather oddly, Lindsay is portrayed as absolutely doting on the child then vanishes entirely from the film, despite the fact that he lived for another quarter century.
The Mansfields have no children of their own. When Dido arrives, they have already taken in her cousin, Elizabeth Murray, great niece to Lord Mansfield. Elizabeth and Dido grow up together, in the film, supposedly as playmates and equals. This idea is largely derived from a portrait painted of the two girls [see above] in their middle teens by an artist originally thought to be Zoffany, but now relegated to by anonymous. The composition of the painting suggests that equality was not quite the relationship. The picture does have Elizabeth resting a hand on Dido, but shows Elizabeth ahead of the girl. In addition, Dido is carrying a basket with fruit and is dressed as the type of exotic ethnic human curiosity much favoured in paintings of the 18th century, the exoticism being signalled not only by her race but the fact that she is sporting a turban. Such touches suggest subordination. The Kenwood accounts book support this by showing Elizabeth receiving an allowance of £100 a year, and Dido only £30. Her position was indeterminate, above a servant but below an unashamed relative.
The film ignores such details. Dido is presented not merely as the natural equal of her cousin Elizabeth Murray, but judged on her merits and circumstances, as more desirable. Her social status is elevated. She is described as an heiress with a fortune of £2,000 (worth £300,000 at 2014 prices) left her by her father. This is simply untrue. Dido inherited a half share of £1,000 from her father and was left £500 and an annuity of £100 p.a. in Mansfield’s will, but this was years after the events covered by the film – her father died in 1788 and Mansfield in 1793. In the film Dido as a girl of twenty or so is represented as being a prize in the marriage stakes because of the fictitious fortune, while Elizabeth Murray is portrayed as the young woman in danger of being left on the shelf because, the film tells us, she has no fortune. In fact, Elizabeth was an heiress with the added lure of being the daughter of an earl.
To give substance to the idea that Dido is the better marriageable property, the film has the son of a peer, Oliver Ashford ( James Norton) wooing and eventually proposing to Dido. His brother James (Tom Felton) objects on the grounds of her race and (mildly) physically assaults Dido. Several other members of the Ashford family also take exception to the match. There is absolutely no evidence for such a romance and it is most improbable that someone of Ashford’s social standing would have thought of such a match, let alone carried it through to the point of a proposal.
To this improbable confection is added the portrayal of the person who marries her. The name of the person, John Davinier, is true to life, but that is as far as reality extends. In the film Davinier is depicted as English, the son of a vicar and a budding lawyer who initially is taken under Mansfield’s patronage. In real life Davinier was French, the son of a servant, who worked as a steward or possibly even as a valet. That he was thought a suitable match for Dido points firmly to her social inferiority.
The second half of the film is largely devoted to Dido working to influence Lord Mansfield over a suit relating to slaves. In 1783 Mansfield has to give a judgement in a case involving the slaveship Zong and her insurers. The insurance claim is made after the cargo of slaves is thrown overboard with the ship owners claiming necessity on the grounds that the ship was running dangerously short of water and could not make landfall to take on water before the entire ship ‘s company was put in danger. Davinier in the film is depicted as a fervent anti-slaver who persuades Belle to get hold of some papers from Mansfield which proves that the Zong owner’s story is false. There is no evidence for Dido’s involvement in the matter and as Davinier is a fictitious character as far as the film is concerned, his involvement is a nonsense.
Next there is the dramatic treatment of Mansfield’s denial of the Zong insurance claim as a triumph for the anti-slavers. In fact Mansfield’s judgement was a very narrow and legalistic one. He did not proceed on the grounds that a slave could not be treated as property to be disposed of at the slave-owners will. All he did was rule that the insurance claim was invalid because the ship’s captain did not have the reason of necessity for his decision to throw the slaves overboard. The film does include this judgment but overlays it with anti-slavery rhetoric by having Mansfield quote in the Zong action his earlier judgement in a slave case – that of the slave Somersett in 1772. There Mansfield ruled that slavery in England could not exist because “The state of slavery . . . is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law” and freed Somersett, the positive law not existing.
The Somersett case is actually a better platform on which to put the antislavery case, but was foregone because Belle would have been at most ten when the case came to court and could not have been portrayed as taking a role in influencing the judgement other than by her mere existence.
There is also an attempt to paint Britain as being greatly dependent economically on the slave trade and the use of slaves in some of the colonies. On a number of occasions it is stated that Britain would be ruined if slavery was undermined. This was indeed a claim made by those benefitting from slavery but it was not the general opinion of the country, nor does it meet the facts. Hugh Thomas in his The Slave Trade estimates that by the second half of the 18th century the returns on slaving were no better than that of many other cargoes.
Simply judged as an theatrical experience, the film fails. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido presents two problems. The first is her acting, which is horribly flat. Theatrically speaking, she was no more than a blank sheet to be written upon, a politically correct banner to be waved at the audience. The second difficulty concerns her looks and demeanour. Frankly, at least to this reviewer’s eyes, she is not the irresistible beauty the film suggests and in this role lacks feminine charm.
An impressive cast of established English character actors surround Mbatha-Raw and the film looks very pretty, but it is dull – very, very dull. This is for the same reason that 12 Years a Slave is dull – it presents only one side of a story in a very preachy manner. There is scarcely a moment when the viewer does not feel they are being told what to think. The slew of first rate English character actors do their best with the meagre fare they have been given, but even the best of actors cannot make a dull script excite.
It is unreasonable to expect an historical film to abide religiously by the details of a complicated story because of the pressure of time and the need for dramatic impact. What is unforgivable is the wilful misrepresentation of a person or event to satisfy an ideological bent. Belle does this in the most blatant fashion. Because racial prejudice has been elevated to the great blasphemy of our times, the film is not merely wrong but dangerous in its one-eyed nature and misrepresentations.
ROBERT HENDERSON is the QR’s film critic. He blogs on politics at livinginamadhouse.com