A period piece about a woman of mixed race who grew up during a time when slavery was legal, Belle opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre. But it represents the personal struggles that director Amma Asante, whose father was West African, experienced while growing up in England.
"We were one of two black families on our street in London," she says. "The equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan would have their meetings at the end of our street at their headquarters; they were called the National Front. You could get bottles thrown at you when you were walking home. We were little girls walking home from school and we would be surrounded by 'big boys,' as I liked to call them, who would use very racist language. That was just life and my dad wanted to instill something in me that would allow to me to cope outside the front door."
Asante says the film's protagonist Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is of mixed race, had a similar struggle. Raised by her father's uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), Dido finds herself in the midst of controversy. Much to her uncle's chagrin, she falls for abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid). Their romance is set against the turbulence of the times.
"I want everyone to see Dido come to a healing place where she realizes she's okay being a woman of color in an aristocratic society," says Asante. "I also had to bring gender and class and race and those parallels into the film. At what point do you get that political awakening? Is it political with a small 'p' or Political with a large 'P?' And how could I show Dido in a way that wouldn't make you irritated with her? She wasn't just privileged as far as people of color are concerned. She was privileged as far as most people are concerned. How could I make it so she wasn't asking for more, but she was asking for equality and for a right that would resonate with all of us? I dug deep into those themes. I'm a thematic storyteller and a thematic filmmaker. For me, that was the process of research and bringing it to screen."
But first and foremost, the film is a story about how true love can beat the toughest odds.
"I'm an irrepressible romantic," says Asante. "I felt like I had permission to hang my hook on a big romantic love story. For the film's love story, I wanted to pay homage to the love of my life in the same way that I wanted to pay homage to the paternal love story with my father. I wanted audiences to see that he falls in love with her internal before the external.