In Scone Palace in Scotland hangs a portrait of two young women. Painted in 1779, it features Elizabeth Murray and her cousin, Dido Elizabeth Belle. What is uncommon about it is that the mixed-race Dido is depicted on even ground with her white cousin, not at her feet or placed in the background.
If these Donald Sterling days of confounding stupidity about race prove anything, it's that legislation or elections or cultural shifts won't wipe out racism altogether; there will always be pockets of hate and illogic that time will have to slowly erode. Watching Belle reminds us that, even after 250 years, some things are too stubborn to go away on their own.
Of course, the denizens of the 18th century had not cracked the science that proved just how equal the races were, which is why a painting showcasing such a thing was a mild controversy. The film, based on a true story, is not about the portrait, although it is featured here as a symbol of the many hurdles Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) must overcome in her life. That raises pertinent questions: How does any woman, much less a mulatto born out of wedlock to English aristocracy and shunted to the shadows, change things? With her voice, in an era when such a thing did not exist? With her silence, which could just as easily be seen as obedience? By fighting? By refusing to fight?
Her father leaves young Dido on the doorstep of his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), and it is in Mansfield's birthplace that the portrait of the two cousins is now displayed. But he is not some blueblood who never needs to venture off his estate; the earl is the senior judge in all of England and as Dido blossoms into a beautiful woman, he is debating the future of the slave trade with one of the most important cases involving abolition. The Zong Massacre involved a slave ship crew dumping more than 140 slaves into the ocean, claiming there was not enough water on board to complete the journey, and trying to pry an insurance settlement for the lost "property."
Whether or not the Earl of Mansfield wrestled with his decision by looking into the eyes of his niece, Belle ties these disparate ends together quite well. In fact, the screenplay is far more intricate and impassioned than most Victorian or Georgian period pieces, and there's not a stray character or incongruent line of dialogue anywhere. Its strains of melodrama are to be expected; Belle is still a romantic drama set against a backdrop of societal change and not the other way around. Dido is a free woman who nevertheless can't eat with her biological family when guests arrive and can't marry into a family of equal standing. As radiant and intelligent and well-off as she is, she is still black, and that makes her a second-class citizen in almost everyone's eyes.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw has done a few things you may have seen but this is a true star-making turn. In addition to her I-can't-believe-people-are-this-good-looking beauty, there's a real ferocity in her performance. These costume dramas have earned a reputation for being quiet and civilized, with brief outbursts of rage or repressed love, but Mbatha-Raw is a three-alarm fire throughout, never more so than during a heated exchange with the mother of a suitor (Miranda Richardson).
Ultimately, the story of Dido Belle is a reference point for the larger story of equality for women, for minorities, for the voiceless. And with the ugly drumbeat of racism still so prevalent, we need all the reference points we can get.