For the past two weeks, my 18th century literature class has been talking about the slave trade and how this issue is portrayed in film. Our first screening on the issue came in the form of Amazing Grace (2006), directed by Michael Apted. The film follows William Wilberforce as he struggles with Parliament to end the British transatlantic slave trade. With the help of various important British men and Equiano, a freed slave who wrote about his experience as a slave and successfully published and sold his autobiography. Interestingly, most of my peers had previously seen the film at church events. Equiano played a major role in ending the slave trade, however the film depicted him as a sort of mascot for the issue and focused more on Wilberforce’s economic and political conflicts. In comparison, Belle did a more successful job in portraying the disturbing moral issue of ownership.
Belle (2013), directed by African American female Amma Asante tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed girl born into slavery and later taken in by her great uncle in England, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield. The film brings light to the issue of slavery by focusing on one case, the Zong massacre. Lord Mansfield, being the Chief Justice, must rule if the drowning of hundreds of slaves was an act of insurance fraud (I won’t spoil his decision). Asante uses this case as a way to expand the issue of slavery to include topics of feminism. Elizabeth Murray, played by Sarah Gadon makes the point that “women are property of gentlemen.” Dido, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, transitions to a woman, only to find that her race, despite the fact that she lives with the wealthy Murray’s, affects who she marries, what she does in public and if and when she can eat alongside the Murray family. Elizabeth and Dido act as sisters and friends, but both of them know that they live by different standards. It is not until John Davinier, played by Sam Reid, is introduced, that Dido begins to be self-aware and learn about her ancestor’s mistreatment. Davinier also introduces Dido to the case of the Zong massacre. Through Dido and Davinier, Asante highlights the moral issue of the slave trade, rather than the economic issue prevalent in Amazing Grace. John and Dido argue to Lord Mansfield that one can not put a price on any human life or death.
In contrast to John, The Ashford brothers, played by James Norton and good ole Tom Felton, represent the how men perceived African Americans, and women in general, during the time period. Oliver Ashford (Norton) labels Dido as “exotic” and explains to her that she has “privilege” by living with the Murray’s. On the other hand, Divinier criticizes the fact that the family won’t let Dido eat dinner with them when there is company. In true Malfoy style, James Ashford (Felton) confronts Dido in an intense scene, straddling the line between desire and shame in his harsh treatment of Dido.
Expanding on Oliver’s point of Dido’s privilege, I think that it is very misconstrued. Oliver sees the fact that she’s an African American woman living with the Murray’s as a daughter, not as a servant, and he considers that to be privilege. However, she’s held to very different standards compared to Elizabeth in regards to marriage, her dowry, her up bringing, etc. Dido has been isolated from her history. Dido explains Lord Mansfield’s parenting skills as wanting her to “see no ill,” as if ignoring the fact makes everything better. Although realizing that she is different and oppressed elicits a very emotional scene of Dido vigorously rubbing her face in front of the mirror, it is also contrasted with a similar scene where Dido looks at herself in the mirror and smiles, as if she knows what she wants and finally knows herself.