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Hollywood by Choice

“Belle” A love story that helped change a nation

Gail Choice | 5/1/2014, midnight

Belle is one of those movies that hits you like a lightning bolt; totally unexpected and electrifies every part of your body.

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Belle. She has been seen on Broadway in Hamlet with Jude Law and on the television series Touch with Kiefer Sutherland. Her stunning and powerful performance as Belle takes you back to a time few Blacks could ever imagine, and her performance was natural and unforced. What she didn’t communicate verbally was often reflected in her eyes, and body movements. Her performance was sheer perfection.

Mbatha-Raw says, “Speaking as a mixed-race woman in 2013, there aren’t many historical stories about people like me. When people think of ‘dual heritage,’ they think it’s a modern concept but really it’s not. So the fact that Dido was a pioneer of her time is amazing to me and I wanted to do justice to her. Her story needs to be known.”

Belle, set in Britain in the 1800’s, is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral. Her father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), let it be known to his family that he loved his daughter’s mother who was now deceased, and he expected his family to rear his daughter in a manner befitting of her station. Belle grew up with her half-cousin, the Lady Elizabeth Murray (Bette) played by Sarah Gadon, who was an orphan.

Belle was left in the care of her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). Mansfield wasn’t just her great uncle, he was Lord Chief Justice, whose powers were reportedly only second to the King of England, and he adored the beautiful, outspoken, headstrong Belle.

His love for her led him to a decision triggered by a notorious slave incident on the high seas: the Zong slave ship trial that signaled the death-knell of slavery in Great Britain. But wait, there is more to Belle’s story then this. It’s also a love story powerful enough to challenge the best of Jane Austen’s novels.

We are taken into a world based on an age-old custom of marrying for power and wealth. Unlike her cousin Bette, Belle was an heiress; sadly her father died at sea and left her a wealthy woman. Despite her color, men were willing to marry her for her money.

Belle did receive a marriage proposal and she was as ‘giddy’ as any girl could be, but love got in the way. Enter the vicar’s son, John Davinier (Sam Reid); handsome, strong-willed and full of questions he wasn’t afraid to ask, like why was Belle not permitted to eat with the family when they were entertaining guests? In short, he is a handful, and just what Belle needed in her life.

Belle is an honest movie. One scene in particular struck soundly at my heart. Belle, after experiencing a tough afternoon with aristocratic families eyeing and commenting on her skin color and appearance, sat down in front of a mirror and began hitting and slapping her face while crying. There are other scenes that grab you like when she first set eyes on the family’s Black servants, and her problems of combing her mass of kinky hair. These were very rich moments.

Ironically Dido Elizabeth Belle’s story came to the big screen because of a painting screenwriter Misan Sagay saw while touring Scone Palace at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Sagay had adopted Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God into an award-winning miniseries presented by Oprah Winfrey.

Sagay wanted to know more about the 1779 painting and who this Black woman was. She said, “As a writer and a Black woman I was dedicated to finding these stories of other Black women in a time when they had little voice.”

Amazingly, producer Damian Jones also came across the same painting while visiting Kenwood House in North London. He too was curious because paintings of that era always featured Blacks as slaves or servants. The two, Sagay and Jones, eventually met through a mutual friend, and the film was brought to life.

Belle is in theaters Friday, May 2. I give this film an A+ rating. The production is rich in every aspect. It was expertly told, with riveting performances. To learn more about the movie and see featurettes go to http://www.foxsearchlight.com/belle/.