Screenwriter Misan Sagay is probably best known for writing Oprah’s made for TV movie “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” starring Halle Berry.
On May 2, Sagay’s latest work “Belle,” will hit theaters. “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.
Read our exclusive interview below:
What captivated you about the painting?
Misan: Well, I went to Scone Palace … and I saw the painting. I was struck immediately when I saw the painting. It was this black woman staring directly out of the painting. She was vivacious. She was alive. She was painted in movement and yet the picture underneath, the caption simply said, “The Lady Elizabeth Murray.” Nothing else. I was intrigued by who this black woman was. Years later, when I went back and the caption had been updated to, “Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido, the Housekeeper’s Daughter,” I just didn’t buy it. I didn’t think that she was the housekeeper’s daughter. I felt that there was a story here and so that’s what captivated me. It was her herself and her presence and yet her silence. She didn’t even have a name.
Q: At what point did you go from just seeing the painting to writing a screenplay?
Misan: Well, the second time I saw and she was now called the “Housekeeper’s Daughter,” I knew there was a story here and I began to research and … I had a great stroke of luck that my son’s godmother was friends with the Countess of Mansfield and so they gave me access and I was able to then get access to the archives there and going through sort of really boxes in the attic. They were family notes. The picture of who Belle was could emerge from the shadows really. There were the accounts of the house and there were also Lord Mansfield’s own personal notebooks and together I began to have the feel of who Belle was, what she was, and how she lived and that is what had been translated into a screenplay. I wrote a pitch in 2004 and about my intention to make a Jane Austin story with slavery and found it very difficult to get that financed and ended up having to finance the initial writing myself. I wrote it on spec because people couldn’t see that it could be done but I’m glad I did it that way because it, you know, it’s meant that it’s come out very much the film that I set out to make.
Q: And you already mentioned in our roundtable the diary that you discovered with one of the ladies of the time. Can you tell me a little bit more about sifting through all those materials and boxes. Were there any stories or surprising moments just from viewing everything?
Misan: Absolutely, the surprising moment was finding that Lord Mansfield would often jot. He had his diaries where actually his notebooks were legal notebooks in which he would discuss how Tom Something or Somebody had stolen what and caught guilty and so they were the quite dry legal notebooks and then he would jot in the margins little notes and one of the notes for example, he jots,”Dido wrote this. I hope you can read it.” So, there were these little notes that he would write that maybe gave us more of an insight into his life and what was important to him. One of the most, as a mother myself, if you go through my accounts in a hundred years time, you’ll find that I buy two of everything because I have two sons I love equally and that was another thing that I noticed, that he would buy two of everything whenever he bought and therefore his relationship with both girls, as far as being at home was, was very close and very equal. So, it was all of those sorts of things. Whenever you’re doing stories about women or about black people you very often have to infer and you have to go in search of them in those records and that’s what I did. I went in search of Dido.
Q: Can you tell me about seeing Gugu Mbatha-Raw bring this character to life and what that was like for you to see it?
Misan: It was just stunning. She is not only very beautiful, she brought a truth. Gugu has, whether through research or through life, absolutely found the truth of who Dido was. There isn’t a moment in the film where she’s not true. She wears the costumes, the costumes don’t wear her. She understands and is in every scene and she’s radiantly beautiful. She’s a star, you know.
Q: And also, there’s a fascinating legal story in the backdrop of the love story. Can you tell me about how you discovered this legal case?
Misan: Because there were two stories that he also decided what was called the very famous “Somerset Case” and it was a choice which of the two cases to use and I think I decided in the end on the Zong case, partly because it takes place away from the action. The Somerset case took place and James Somerset was there. The Zong case was away from the action because it let Belle’s story shine. She could not be pushed to the background by that legal story and yet it was a tremendously important legal story because it was one of the things that really was an important way station to end slavery because when people in England understood that there was a link between stirring sugar in their tea and having people thrown overboard. There was widespread revulsion and outrage and I think that that was important, therefore that it was able to be in the story but not overwhelm it.
Q: Can you tell us about showing the dynamic between Dido Elizabeth and her cousin?
Misan: I loved it. I loved the idea that they grew up as sisters but when that relationship becomes tested they almost fall apart over it. That it was easy, in a way, when Dido was one thing and Elizabeth was another but when, as in our movie, Elizabeth becomes poor and Dido becomes an heiress, again that tests their relationship and I think we tested their relationship and in the end they still remained sisters and I think that was also important.
Q: Can you tell me about your passion for writing because you’re a medical doctor and went through a lot of training to do one specific thing, but now you are screenplay writer.
Misan: I love to write because it’s a sort of an amazing act for me, act of creation that you can stand one day and look at a painting and look at the girls and then have the immense privilege that a few years later you’re watching it on screen. I love to write because I think it is the most important thing we, as black people have today. We have to tell our stories our way because we have been defined by other people and by seizing this moment to be able to tell our stories and to say, “These are the stories we want to tell,” these are the moments where we’re now really taking control of who we are. I think that’s a very, very important stage for us.