Eighteenth century British aristocracy used portraiture to make a statement.
In 1779, when a portrait of the First Earl of Mansfield William Murray's biracial great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, was commissioned a statement was being made. Dido wasn't portrayed in a subservient position to her cousin. This is said to be one of the first paintings where a black person and white aristocrat are at equal eye-level. (See the portrait.)
I admire how British film director Amma Asante creatively used a historic work of art as the basis for the film, Belle, which highlights the horrors of the 18th century slave trade, and continues a much-needed dialogue on race, gender, class and what it means to be human.
The film is an interpretation of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle while she lived in Kenwood House. The illegitimate biracial daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy captain, and an enslaved African woman, she was raised by Lord Mansfield, her great-uncle and at the time Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and his wife. By law, Dido's bloodline made her residing in the household possible.
The storyline of the film offers that although she was able to live with privilege, Dido, herself, in a sense was not privileged. Wearing beautiful garments and keeping company with her cousin on the palatial grounds of the estate, did not substitute for the fact that she did not have the status of nobility; she couldn't even dine at the same dinner table as her family and their guests.
After the death of her father, she receives her inheritance. Her financial independence provided her the freedom not to marry, as most women sought marriage to survive financially, including her cousin, Lady Elizabeth. Dido's wealth could compensate for the fact that she would most likely not marry, yet she still desired love and to wed.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as Dido, a young woman grappling with racism and identity, yet arriving at self-acceptance, is brilliant. A particularly poignant scene in the film is when Dido sits at a vanity and stares at her reflection. She looks at her skin, then in despair, begins to furiously rub her face and arms, as to wish her hue away. I thought of myself at that moment. I remembered that for a time when I was a teen, similar thoughts about my skin tone filled my head.
Though, we witness Dido's progression. The same young lady, who begins to find confidence in herself and appreciation for her mother's heritage, ends an engagement to a man whose family looked upon the African ancestry of her mother as unfortunate. The inner strength Dido finds is also pivotal in influencing her great-uncle's role in the eventual abolition of slavery in England. And, she marries a man who truly loves her.
I admit that prior to this film, I had not known about Dido or the historic portrait. As a black woman of diverse heritage myself, which includes a grandmother who was biracial and raised in the deep south of the U.S. in the 1930s, where slavery only ended only about 60 years prior, this important film resonates with me.
In Belle, the storyline embodies lessons in what it means to be human, race and gender. As we know, struggle in these areas are still occurring in 21st century societies.
A current event that comes to mind is this past April in Nigeria, an Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram, kidnapped at least two hundred girls secondary school in Chibok, who are still in captivity. (Read more.) This inhumane act of young women being victimized promoted the social media hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls.
Even in terms of advertising and popular culture in the U.S., the response to a 2013 Cheerios cereal TV commercial is an example. Featuring an interracial couple and their daughter, the ad stirred up much controversy. We are in the age of the Internet and virtual reality, yet there are still people who are outraged by interracial marriage. (I loved the company's response of creating a follow-up commercial in which the topic is a new addition to the family.)
I appreciate that in Belle, through the great portrayal of Lord Mansfield by Tom Wilkinson, we see a process of self-examination. Despite the ideals and laws of the land, he was able to realize the immorality of the slave trade, which forced him to question his own beliefs.
The film suggests that it was his love for Dido, whom he initially did not want to raise, yet grew to consider his daughter, which opened his eyes to the evil of enslavement. I personally believe that it is through introspection, learning about different cultures, questioning personal biases, choosing not to live in fear, truly understanding -- all human life is precious and priceless -- and though it may sound a little idealistic, love, the belief and practice of racism could no longer exist.
I think Belle is an important film, as it not only has tremendous performances and a well-written storyline, but also prompts the viewer to be reflective.
Follow Sheryl Estrada on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SherylEstrada