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Bringing Slavery Into the Heart of Jane Austen

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DIDO ELIZABETH BELLE
Public domain

Getting a screenplay from page to screen can be a long process, and this is doubly so when the subject is so different. In 2004 I conceived a Jane Austenesque, costume-drama feature film with a black female lead that also addresses slavery. It was inspired by the painting above.

I was at university at St. Andrews when I first saw the painting. St. Andrews is a small university somewhat isolated in the cold Scottish countryside, and I saw very few other black people there. So imagine my surprise when, walking into one of the bedrooms of nearby Scone Palace, I encountered a stunning painting of a black girl, bright eyes looking out at me -- at least that's what I saw. The caption underneath said, "The Lady Elizabeth Murray." That's all.

To whoever wrote that caption, the very thing that had captivated me, this beautiful black woman, was invisible. I was a medical student at that time, and I tried to find out about her, but no information was available. The Internet was a newfangled invention! I encountered her again 10 years later, and this time I was ready to write her story. But that first encounter is to me a metaphor for why black people have to tell our own stories.

My friends the Murray Thrieplands live nearby at Fingask Castle and are friendly with the Mansfield family. Through them I met the present countess of Mansfield and gained access to the Scone Palace archives.

Research is a double-edged sword. You find out more about your subject, but you mustn't let it turn into a straitjacket. I found myself moved not just by the facts, extraordinary as they were (the girls in the picture were Dido Belle and Elizabeth, beloved great nieces of the first earl of Mansfield who lived as sisters in his household), but by what they meant and what lay between them in the interstices of this story. And then I found the even-more-extraordinary fact that Lord Mansfield was making important judgments about slavery at the same time. At Scone I found Lord Mansfield, my pliant Dido and the rebellious Elizabeth in the notes in the margins of Lord Mansfield's law diaries and the household accounts. The story I found in myself. While based on a true character, Belle is necessarily a work of historical fiction.

From the outset, even though I was dealing with class and race and even slavery, I wanted to write a love story, not a hate story. I wanted to explore the complications of love. So the story's heart is Belle's love story at age 17 with John Davinier. (The real Belle married at 32 after Lord Mansfield's death, and there's no evidence that Davinier ever met him.)

For Belle this is a moment of flux, the Jane Austen moment when a girl discovers her position, her class, her worth in society and, in this case, her race. She's forced out of her childhood arcadia at Kenwood and into the outside world by the needs of love and marriage and has to grow from a child to a woman. We know almost nothing about the real Davinier, who, in real life, was probably a steward who maybe became a grocer. (Fortnum & Mason was founded this way.) But I wanted a more Byronic hero who would tie us to the Zong case. So I made him the catalyst for change as a newly returned vicar's son who is a fierce abolitionist.

From the start I avoided all the clichés, like the black character who earns the acceptance of the white characters through superhuman feats of generosity and saintlike goodness. We first encounter Dido at age 7, brought to Kenwood by her father. She and Lord Mansfield walk along the long gallery, looking at their joint ancestors. This is where she belongs. She is there by right. It is the white characters who have to deal with it. Every conventional scenario is turned on its head. Through Belle's relationship with Elizabeth, we explore the place of women in society, but here I made Belle an heiress and Elizabeth poor. (In reality Elizabeth was the heiress.)

I surrounded Belle with the funny, witty, wise women I love and write. Yet we never make light of Belle's social isolation. My research led me to many girls who had been adopted into very white environments, from poor Welsh mining families to a duke's household! All said exactly the same thing: The first moment they understood themselves to be black and normal was the first time another black person combed their hair! That scene was beautifully acted in a multilayered performance by the luminous Gugu Mbatha Raw. Several people have told me it made them cry!

What about Lord Mansfield? I knew from the start that it would be difficult to control him as a character. He is a big historical figure who has left a big footprint, so every care was taken not to let him overwhelm the story. The triangular love story was set almost from the first draft, but tying Lord Mansfield in really came through the Zong case. I was committed from the outset to framing the story around one of Mansfield's judgments. The most obvious was the Somersett case, as it is actually more historically significant. But in the end I chose the Zong case because it happens away from the action, and that was necessary to make it Belle's story. Lord Mansfield is considering taking Daviner on as a law pupil, and their relationship, as well as John's growing love for Belle, move us to the climax.

In 2004 I sent out written pitches and pitched in person a Jane Austenesque love story that allows us to explore the black British presence in a surprising way. It was very difficult because in those days everyone I met said that no one was interested in slavery. So I went on alone.

The job of crafting such an ambitious, complex screenplay -- finding the story, then creating the characters and writing the scenes that tell that story -- is necessarily a long one. I have woven a tale of many layers: class, race, gender, belonging and, in the end, the process of choices, editing to clarify its heart.

Every one of the characters goes on a journey of self-discovery. At the start each one is chained by society's rules, restricted from loving freely -- each other and themselves -- by convention and prejudice. Any society that does not have freedom at its heart is perverted, itself chained by that sin. The film's journey is romantic, passionate and true. That's especially true of Belle's. She lived and she died silent, and we have given her a voice. That painting will never be labeled "Lady Elizabeth Murray" again!

My script found a home first with Julie Goldstein (Shakespeare in Love) at HBO. When Julie left HBO, she took this beloved project with her. I then teamed up with producer Damian Jones, who finally acquired the project, including my screenplay, in 2009. We took it together to the BFI, which came on board at this point. Several directors were approached as I continued to work on the script. In August 2010, just after I left the project with ill health, Damian brought the director Amma Asante on board. The film based on my script was announced in the press as fully financed and ready to shoot just a year later, in 2011. It was shot in 2012.

Belle is an empowering black female character who goes from caring desperately about her worth in society to discovering and asserting her worth in herself. In this drawing-room drama about the life of this young girl, I rewrite the story of that momentous change in society. We were not freed as a favor. We demanded and took our freedom as a right. Like Belle.

For more information on Belle, visit belle-themovie.com.