Fox Searchlight’s “Belle” Directed by Amma Asante and starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw hits theaters on May 2, 2014.
The Source Magazine had the opportunity to attend an intimate reception celebrating the film at La Grenouille. “Belle” is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle an illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is taken in by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson). Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of noble social standing. While her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) chases suitors for marriage, Belle is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on changing society, he and Belle help shape Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England.
Before dessert, Amma and Gugu participated in a discussion about the film moderated by British historian Amanda Foreman. Read highlights below:
Q: So could you tell us how did you come across this amazing story?
Amma: it was a gift. My producer Damian Jones sent me a postcard print of the painting that you talk about that hung in Kenwood House, some years ago in exhibition and I was astonished by it. I knew enough about the history of art to know how different this painting was. And I was obsessed with 18th century, the 18th century experience of the woman anyway. Largely because of Amanda’s work and I just wanted to know why she was there? This woman of color. Who she was standing next to who was touching her with such affection and most importantly who had commissioned this painting? Who had the courage in that period to commission to immortalize you know, this woman in a painting. And so it began the process of lots and lots of research
Q: Gugu, if you don’t mind my saying your specialty seems to be tragic heroines. You played Juliet in Manchester; you played Ophelia in the Donmar Warehouse here and New York. Now you’re playing Belle who’s certainly a heroine, do you think she’s tragic?
Gugu: No. You know what really drew me to Belle and to the whole story was there’s so much heart in the story and the romantic element of it and I don’t think she’s tragic at all. I really found it refreshing because it reminded me of a lot of the Jane Austen adaptations and stories that I’d grown up with but I’d never seen it told from this perspective before. So it was just so refreshing and inspiring to me that Dido really existed, that it was based on a real woman. And I found it inspiring rather than tragic. I think that to know that she existed, that she’s part of our cultural heritage in the UK. Not many people knew about her, I certainly didn’t know about her until I was alerted to the painting from Damian Jones the producer. And so I just think it was really grounding and exciting for me to know that she was a real woman, and the potential influence that she had over Lord Mansfield for the case. Yeah, a very inspiring character in history.
Q: Amma, I think one of the many reasons why people love this film so much is that it has a very powerful message, but that message isn’t a one liner, it’s extremely complex. One aspect of it is this sense of where do we belong? And there’s this marvelous line in the film where Dido says, where you have her say in your script “I don’t know where I find myself” and it is incredibly moving because we are all belonging and wanting to belong somewhere. And I wanted to ask you how you balance art with message and how did you achieve that so beautifully?
Amma: I think when you are trying to express characters on a screen and I always think of film making in many ways as a conversation between the audience and the movie itself. And I have a strong sense and strong belief that audiences connect to heart, like you are saying. And so if you specifically go out to say that this is the scene where I am going to put this message across, you end up sort of banging people over the head with a message. So for me, what I like to do is in my head when I am making a film is start with some key words that represent the themes that I would like you know the film to express, and then I just try to forget them, I literally try to forget them after that. I don’t want them to rule me, and for me I try to tell stories that move me. And I hope it is not an arrogant belief, I hope it is a sensible belief that if the story moves me that it will move the audience. And then you go through a process of listening I mean hopefully you are working with people that you trust. And so it was a case of listening to my cast, listening to my producer, and you know listening to the financiers and working out what notes that they would give or feedback they would give that would strengthen the story and the essence of the story that I am trying to tell … and really trying not to throw the baby out with the bath water. I could never go in to it with this idea that I am the expert. I want to listen to how people respond to the movie that I want to make. And what’s really nice now is sitting with audiences at film festivals and at private screenings; I can actually hear that conversation going on between the audience and the movie. And people will hiss and people will cheer, and people will laugh and people with cry and at a particular point in the movie people will say “no don’t marry him, don’t say yes” and that is how I am feeling while I am making the movie. And if I am not feeling like that, then I certainly can’t communicate that to my audience. So it is trying to make sure that I never get cynical and I continue to try and feel.
Q: Can you speak about the restraint of the time period?
Gugu: I mean, for me and what I really responded to in this script and you know from Amma’s direction, really is the nuances and it was really, you know a gift to have a role like this where like you say there is a sense of restrained emotion and the etiquette of the day which is kind of lost now. You know from the clothes and the corsets and the rituals and just the way society functioned. I think it is a real gift to have those constraints because then it forces you to look for other layers, and be a little bit more detailed and scrupulous as an actor instead of investigating your emotions. And so I love having that constraint because then the moment you do get to explode or the moment you do get to put someone in their place or potentially lose your temper or whatever it is that the character is going through. I think it has that much more significance and you’re not just kind of wasting that energy and I think that in the payoff emotionally is that much greater. So yeah, I love having the restraint of that period.
Q: You have had so much acclaim in Britain; you’ve already won a BAFTA. What’s next on the agenda for you?
Amma: Well, I hope to make another movie with Fox very soon. I will be doing a thriller with Warner Brothers called “Unforgettable”… which has a double female lead and is sort of is contemporary but looks at sort of many of the themes that I am obsessed with. You know the role of the woman in society today, gender, class, identity. Who defines you? Society or yourself what’s most important? So I’ll be doing my first genre piece which is a thriller and I am absolutely looking forward to the project, whereby Gugu and I can get together and work together again. So you know, I actively have my eyes and ears open as do our agent. Were very lucky we’re both at the same agency so that’s great. And I just hope to get to continue telling good strong, entertaining stories with a message.
Q: Gugu, I think of you as a Shakespearean actress, although hitting the big screen beckons. What’s next for you?
Gugu: I have just finished another film, which is a completely different world, where I am playing a pop star in the music industry. So it’s very very contemporary, much much more edgy. Another female director [Gina Prince-Bythewood] actually, which is really exciting for me. And the film is called “Blackbird” and I am singing and dancing and you know exploring that side of things. Well I have to say that the themes that are in “Blackbird” actually do sort of relate to “Belle” as well. It’s another young woman struggling with her identity but in a very different context, so that’s really exciting for me. And I’m just about to start work on another project called “The Whole Truth,” which is a legal drama so completely different, yet again. But yeah I am trying to kind of mix things up, and I think after “Belle” I felt like personally I sort of set the bar higher for myself , in terms of character and the detail and layers of the character. So yeah I knew I had to find something really contrasting to do next.