Director Amma Asante found the story behind her new movie, Belle, in a painting: artist Johann Zoffany's 18th century portrait of two beautiful, young English ladies, draped in silks and pearls. The twist? One is biracial.
Belle is based on the real-life story of that woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was the daughter of a Royal Navy captain and the slave he met after capturing a Spanish ship.
As a young girl, Dido's father brought her to the grand country home of his uncle and aunt, who were already raising the daughter — white, of course — of another nephew. They agreed that girl was much in need of a companion like Dido. But instead of bringing Dido up as a servant, they chose to bring her up as a member of the family.
Dido's great-uncle was traditional, but with a progressive bent. As Britain's top judge, he eventually decided a key legal battle involving the slave trade, all while raising his mixed-race niece whom he adored.
Asante, who is herself black, tells NPR's Renee Montagne what makes the painting so remarkable:
"Around the time of the 18th century, we really were — people of color were — an accessory in a painting. We were there rather like a pet to express the status of the main person in the painting, who was always white. And for anybody who's lucky enough to see the painting, what you see is something very, very different. You see a biracial girl, a woman of color, who's painted slightly higher in the painting, depicted slightly higher than her white counterpart. She's staring directly out at the painter, you know, with a very direct, confident eye. ... So this painting flipped tradition and everything that the 18th century told us about portraiture."
Asante says the painting, and its backstory, offered a unique storytelling opportunity:
"These two girls were aristocrats. You know, they held very high positions in society; their family held a very high position in society. What I saw from the painting was this opportunity, if I got it right, to tell a story that would combine art history and politics."
Click the audio link above to hear the rest of Morning Edition's interview with director Amma Asante.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Director Amma Asante found the story behind her new movie in a painting: a portrait from the late 1700s of two beautiful, young English ladies, draped in silks and pearls. The twist? One was black. Asante's movie, "Belle," is based on the real-life story of that woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle was the daughter of a Royal Navy captain and the slave he met after capturing a Spanish ship.
Dido's father brought her to the grand country home of his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield, played by Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson, were raising the white daughter of another nephew and they agreed Dido Belle would make a most-welcome companion.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELLE")
EMILY WATSON: (as Lady Mansfield) And that is what we shall say when questions are asked.
TOM WILKINSON: (as Lord Mansfield) We shall say that in accordance with her birthright she is entitled to live beneath this roof. That is the nature of order.
WATSON: (as Lady Manfield) And where in that order should her color be placed?
MONTAGNE: In that era, below stairs as a servant. Instead, Lord and Lady Mansfield chose to bring up Dido Belle as family. A progressive move for a man who was Britain's powerful chief judge. And even as he raised a mixed race niece he adored, Lord Mansfield was called upon to make a key judgment in a legal battle involving the slave trade.
When she joined us to talk about "Belle," director Amma Asante began with the remarkable portrait that inspired her film.
AMMA ASANTE: Around the time of the 18th century, we really were - people of color were - an accessory in a painting. We were there rather like a pet to express the status of the main person in the painting, who was always white. And for anybody who's lucky enough to see the painting, what you see is something very, very different.
You see a biracial girl, a woman of color, depicted slightly higher than her white counterpart. She's staring directly out at the painter, which, you know, with a very direct, confident eye. And actually, it's her white cousin whose hand is resting on this biracial woman. So this painting flipped tradition and everything that the 18th century told us about portraiture.
MONTAGNE: And the two of them are both wearing sumptuous clothes.
MONTAGNE: Silks, satins, jewels, dripping in bling, basically.
ASANTE: You're really correct. These two girls were aristocrats. You know, they held very high positions in society; their family held a very high position in society. What I saw from the painting was this opportunity to tell a story that would combine art history and politics.
MONTAGNE: Dido and her cousin Elizabeth, they were raised as sisters and grew to love each other as sisters. And Lord and Lady Mansfield, they dote on both the girls. But let's listen to a scene that shows it's not quite that simple. Dido calls her cousin Bette and they've just received some exciting news.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELLE")
WATSON: (as Lady Mansfield) We shall be receiving visitors for dinner.
SARAH GADON: (as Bette) May we wear the new silk?
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: (as Dido) I will do your hair, Bette.
GADON: (as Bette) Yeah. Oh, say we may wear them, Aunt Mary.
WATSON: (as Lady Mansfield) You will not be dining with us, Dido.
MBATHA-RAW: (as Dido) Of course. But I may join after dinner, may I not?
WATSON: (as Lady Mansfield) Yes. Such are the rules and you know them well.
MONTAGNE: So the rules. What were the rules?
ASANTE: Dido could not eat with the family in formal situations. And what formal situations meant was when they had formal guests. She was allowed to join after dinner and she could sit and, you know, play cards with the visitors and, you know, enjoy the sort of after dinner activities that would go on in the 18th century in that kind of family. But she certainly couldn't eat with the family.
And this was something that was very much a part of the rules, if you like, of society of the time.
MONTAGNE: So the outside world - there's a great line in the movie where some guests come in after dinner and there she is and the high born lady gasps, oh, she's black.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BELLE")
MIRANDA RICHARDSON: (as Lady Ashford) I had no idea she would be so black.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as guest) Did you not listen to the rumors spreading the remark(ph)?
ASANTE: The character that you're speaking about is played by Miranda Richardson. She's Lady Ashford. And, you know, she's very much - I'm sure I'm allowed to say this from a family point of view - based on my ex-husband's mother who was a very lovely, very, very wonderful woman. But my ex-husband was white, I'm black, and found it very, very difficult to come to terms with the fact that I was a different color from her and her son.
And this was, you know, 22 years old when I first met her, this was the kind of language she would use within earshot and that I didn't quite know how to deal with. You know, so the language is very bold and I kind of wanted to transpose one of my experiences onto Dido and create a character that would express some of that.
MONTAGNE: I gather that you're quite a Jane Austen fan.
MONTAGNE: And this, of course, is all the larger era of Jane Austen. There is a kinship between your film "Belle" and the work of Jane Austen. Like in "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice" social rank and money dictate matters of the heart - or at least attempt to. So did you see Dido's story with this added element of race as a natural extension of that world?
ASANTE: One hundred percent, Renee. I mean completely. And I was fascinated with the way that Austen dealt with so many, in some ways, you know, very feminist issues but with wit and with such eloquence. And it really was my dream to kind of create a movie in that ilk. You know, to present you as an audience with a really familiar world, a world that you have a shorthand to, and then present you with this character that you haven't ever really quite seen before in this way in the midst of this world.
MONTAGNE: This movie does seem in many ways about finding one's true self.
MONTAGNE: And I'm just curious - as a black female director, a costume drama, what did it mean for you?
ASANTE: It meant a lot to me because, you know, I grew up never seeing anybody that looked like me wearing these dresses during this period because it was very, very, very rare. But yet I was one of those little girls that got lost in the romance of period drama and lost in the fantasy of it all. And what I feel very fulfilled about is the idea now that little girls of color will grow up and know that at least in this film they're showed a possibility that we were more than slaves.
That we could live an aristocratic life. We could be treated with value. We could be loved. And it feels big for me to be able to put this on the silver screen and know that young girls from here on will be able to look at "Belle" and find themselves somewhere in her.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.
ASANTE: Thank you. I've enjoyed it.
MONTAGNE: Amma Asante's film is "Belle." You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.