Wandering the grand halls of Scone Palace in Scotland you might stumble on a pretty portrait of two beautiful women in 18th-century clothes, seemingly affectionate sisters. Not so unusual — except one of the "sisters" is black.
Who is that, you might well wonder, as did Misan Sagay, then a young British college student of Nigerian descent, long accustomed to being the only black face in most British rooms. She stopped short upon spotting the painting while touring the palace near her university.
"I was stunned. And taken aback," says Sagay, now in her 40s and a screenwriter (Their Eyes Were Watching God). The castle brochure named only the white woman in the portrait, Lady Elizabeth Murray. When she returned a few years later, Sagay says, there was more information on the label, naming the black woman as Dido, "the housekeeper's daughter."
REAL STORY: Movie takes a few liberties
"So the silent black woman had a name," says Sagay. "But I looked at the portrait and the way they were touching, and thought, 'I don't buy this. There is more to this than meets the eye.' "
Indeed there was. Sagay dove into drafty palace archives to learn more, and years later the result is Belle, written on spec by Sagay, directed by Amma Asante, a British woman of Ghananian descent, and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw,a British woman of South African descent.
An elegantly rendered costume drama that opened Friday, Belle tells a true story only lately becoming better known in Britain and remarkable in its details: An illegitimate biracial child, Dido Elizabeth Belle, born to a British admiral and a former slave he loved, is brought up as an orphaned, beloved member of her father's aristocratic family in 1770s Jane Austen-era England. She is so beloved she is painted as an equal with her white sister/cousin, in marked contrast to the usual subservient poses of black people in paintings of the era.
The movie shows how Dido's close relationship with the great-uncle who raised her, William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of Britain, influences his rulings that later led to the end of slavery in the British Empire.
Wait, how did we not know about this? And is it true?
It's true, the filmmakers say, in all the important aspects. And it's true in showcasing Mansfield's role in paving the way for the landmark 1833 British law abolishing slavery.
If this year's Oscar winner for best picture, 12 Years a Slave, was a British film about a little-known American slavery story, then Belle is a British film about the British experience of grappling with slavery — only with fabulous clothes, legal drama, a star-crossed love story, and a Downton Abbey-style setting. It's also got a Downton Abbey star, Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley), plus Oscar winner Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson.)
Along the way, the filmmakers explore the status of women, the insurance value of slaves, English class prejudices, and the way marriages among the toffs could be negotiated with an intensity akin to billion-dollar hedge-fund deals.
Americans will recognize another story Belle tells, about the contrasting facts of slavery in the two countries at the time: America had to fight a war to rid itself of slavery and the Brits passed a law. Britain had no plantations on its home soil and, according to historians, there were only about 15,000 black people in London at the time, most paid servants. Britain was as dependent as America on a slave economy but it was a faraway trade most didn't have to confront face to face.
"What I went for in the script was truth," says Sagay, who says she had long wanted to write a "Jane Austen slavery drama" to depict how British society of that era was built on its slave trade. "Even if it takes liberties with some facts, it doesn't take liberties with what people feel."
"We tried to not create anything that distorts the truth or takes anything away, but hopefully will illuminate," says director Asante, 44, a former child actress in Britain and a screenwriter (Brothers & Sisters) in the USA.
Paula Byrne, a historian of the era and biographer of Jane Austen (an acquaintance of Lady Elizabeth Murray), says she can understand why moviegoers might be both fascinated and skeptical of the story.
"As historians, we're always worried about what (movie) people do, but I was moved by (Belle)," she says. "At first I thought I might have done other things with it but now I think they actually did the right thing."
The people most thrilled about Belle are members of the Murray family of Scotland, descendants of Earl Mansfield and owners of Scone Palace (900 years old, where early kings of Scotland were crowned). That is where the 1779 painting of Dido and Elizabeth still hangs.
"Historically, (the filmmakers) have done really, really well — my father was really worried, he thought it might be a complete shambles and he was pleasantly surprised," says William Murray, 25, Master of Stormont, the future 10th Earl of Mansfield and a family consultant on the film.
The Murrays are especially pleased that their ancestors' stories (Dido's was largely unknown even to them for centuries) are coming to light, and being added to British school curricula, Murray says.
"(Dido's) story is unbelievable — it went against every social convention of the time," says Murray. "We are so glad the story of the first earl is coming to the screen, because he was a most remarkable man. His (legal) legacy is very active today but he's one of the forgotten (great) men of history."
Mansfield is regularly cited in court rulings to this day, including U.S. court rulings. But few people know about Dido, and that's what Belle intends to correct — albeit with liberal use of imagination since not that much is recorded about her life, even in family archives.
In fact, though the painting is famous among art lovers as one of the first to depict a black person as equal to a white, it's not even clear who painted it. But it's clear Mansfield commissioned it, which would have been a brave act for the time and place.
"Every tourist who sees it stops, their mouths sort of agape," says Byrne, author of the forthcoming The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. "Wow. It tells a story. Why is Dido wearing the more expensive ostrich feathers? Why is she carrying a plate of fruit? What is the meaning of the grapes? It's a portrait so natural, so playful and incredibly affectionate, the fact one sister is biracial is not even significant."
The Murrays, whose ancestors for centuries were unclear about (or ignored) Dido's identity, are now hoping to hire an art historian to research the portrait, which aside from everything else is a very good painting with powerful appeal and intriguing details.
"Elizabeth is the English rose in an old-fashioned dress of the old regime, while Dido is wearing the catwalk number — the sophisticated, hot, exotic new look," says Murray. The longtime attribution has since been discounted and "we're desperate to pin down who painted it."
Dido was born in 1761, probably in the British West Indies, and was taken to England at age 6. She was named for her mother, Maria Belle, for the earl's first wife, Elizabeth, and for Dido the Queen of Carthage. "It was the name of a popular play at the time," says Murray. "It was probably chosen to suggest her elevated status. It says: This girl is precious, treat her with respect."
She was educated, literate, and clever enough to serve as her great-uncle's legal secretary. Mansfield mentions her lovingly in his diaries and left her money in his will along with a clear statement about her status. "I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom."
She was treated as an equal member of the family with one exception: She could not join them at dinner when guests were present. The voices of the Mansfield women, white or black, aren't found much in family records, but Sagay found evidence of Dido in the account books
"Quite often if they were buying, say, silk bed hangings, they were buying for two," Sagay says. "I came to understand that he loved her, that the two girls in the portrait were in equal relationship to him, both his great-nieces. He loved both of them but he was very close to Dido."
Asante says she joined the Belle project because Dido so inspired her.
"We know who her parents were, we know she was not allowed to eat with the family, we know the historical writings (where she is mentioned), we know who she married (John Davinier) and that she had children," Asante says. "We sew the historical facts together with dialogue that we made up, but all the important facts come from history."
We also know Dido died young, at age 43. We know her last traceable relative, Harold Davinier, died in 1975, a free white South African living in the era of apartheid. But, intriguingly, Murray says the family now thinks there might also be American descendants of Maria Belle in, of all places, Pensacola, Fla.
"It's the newest layer of the onion," says Murray, who attributes it to the work of University of Florida researchers. "We know in 1766 (Dido's father) bought the lot for her house, she was there at least 10 years, and there may have been more kids (with Dido's father, suggesting their continuing relationship). So that's really exciting."
Remarkable as Dido's story is, so are the actions of the men in her life — her father, her great-uncle, her husband. Why did they counter the rigid conventions of their time, not only about race but about class, illegitimacy and wealth?
Murray suggests it may be that Mansfield empathized with his great-niece as an outsider himself in England — he was a Scot, a Catholic, from a family of supporters of the exiled Stuart kings, and a younger son with little money who later climbed to the top of the elite class.
The answer, so many centuries later, may be unknowable, but Belle suggests the simplest explanation: Love.