“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!