Despite recent advancements by people of color, it’s still rare to find a minority actor in a leading dramatic role. It’s even rarer to find one in a historical drama especially if they aren’t playing a servant or a slave. However, the Amma Asante-directed drama, “Belle,” tells the intriguing tale of a free biracial woman being raised by her uncle in upper-echelons of 18th century British society. Based on a true story, Dido Elizabeth Belle has the distinction of being Britain’s first black aristocrat. She is also a wealthy heiress, but her place in society is different than that of her white cousin, Elizabeth. For instance, unlike Elizabeth, Belle is not permitted to dine with the family. She’s also aware that despite her money, her prospects for finding a husband in her own class are extremely limited.
In various interviews, Asante freely admits there’s a Jane Austen element to her film and fans of the latter will immediately pick up on that as Belle and Elizabeth are introduced to the marriage market. While the movie comes close at times to romantic drama clichés, thankfully, it never quite goes down that path thanks in part to the strong performances of newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle and Tom Wilkinson as Belle’s Lord Justice uncle who in an important subplot must decide between pragmatism and his former idealism when determining a case which could have a major impact on the future of Britain’s slave trade.
“Belle” is one of those rare movies that has a little something for everyone– proving that sometimes the most interesting stories come from real life.