“Belle” — class and racial politics in the Georgian era

The recently released movie, Belle, is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised by her great-uncle in the privileged setting of upper-class Georgian society. It is a costume drama and there are stately homes, pretty dresses and carefully landscaped gardens aplenty. However, it is an unusual costume drama because Dido was a wealthy mixed-race woman at a time when black or mixed-race aristocrats were almost non-existent.

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

Photo credit: Wikipedia (public domain image)

The director of Belle, Amma Asante, was inspired by this portrait, which shows Dido and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, painted in 1779. The painting is extraordinary for its time because black or mixed-race subjects in Georgian paintings were rarely portrayed as equal to white subjects. Asante says that “Everything you see in the film, the vision I have created, comes from the painting” (quote source: Ham & High).

I saw the film last week and while I am always a fan of costume dramas, unlike many period drama films this isn’t a typical love story. There is a romance but that is mostly eclipsed by the focus on issues of class, gender and racial politics of the time in which Dido lived. Slavery wasn’t abolished in Britain until 1807 and the film is set in the 1780s, a time of great legal significance in the battle between those who opposed slavery and those who supported it. Belle is a costume drama with a difference!

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10 thoughts on ““Belle” — class and racial politics in the Georgian era

    • It is a great movie and there are so many different social issues bound up in it. Race is the main one but there are also feminist issues, e.g. the lack of power that women had and the pressure to marry well.

      I hope you enjoy it. I certainly did! 🙂

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  1. I’m glad you posted about this movie and that you enjoyed it! I saw the trailer a while back and thought the premise looked promising but was also skeptical about how it would turn out. Seems like it handled tough issues well though so I definitely want to check it out. 🙂

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    • Yes, I think the issues were handled sensitively and really well. The director of the film, Amma Asante, is bi-cultural (she is the daughter of British immigrants from Ghana) so I think her insights feed into the film and lead to a deeper understanding of issues of race. She talked about how her background influenced her when she directed Belle in an interesting interview with The Guardian.

      I hope you enjoy it! For me, it is definitely a standout movie of 2014.

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    • Hi, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      I thought Belle was very well-done and certainly an interesting angle for a costume drama. Much as I love Jane Austen, it deals with somewhat more challenging subjects than her novels and it was refreshing to have a period drama that tackles tough issues.

      You say “not perfect” — I was wondering if there were any particular inaccuracies in the film that you noticed?

      Thanks for the link. I’ll check out your review.

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      • Thanks for the reply! As far as inaccuracies in the film, I believe the real life Belle lived 30 years at Kenwood House and married late in life, and little is known about how she was really treated. Also, from what I have read on the subject, the real life cousin Elizabeth did have a dowry and was quite wealthy. My main objection to the film was just how “neat” Belle’s romance is–the perfect man of integrity is just there at the right time, etc. But there is nothing wrong with poetic license, and I did enjoy it.

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        • Ah, that’s interesting. I don’t know much at all about the real life Dido Belle. Paula Byrne has written a biography entitled Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle. I haven’t read it but I would like to find out more about the real Belle.

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