The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Belle.
Can you each talk about your first impression of the painting that inspired this film?
Mbatha-Raw: I first saw a postcard reproduction of it that I bought in a gift shop, after the producer Damian Jones had told me about the idea of the story. I hung onto the postcard, knowing that hopefully one day it would become a film. I actually saw the real painting about a week after we shot the movie. Myself and Sarah Gadon, who plays my cousin Elizabeth, we really wanted to see it beforehand but couldn’t go because of our schedules. So after we wrapped the film we drove up to Scotland and got to see the painting, and have a tour of Scone Palace by William Stormont, who is kind of like the keeper of the estate?
Asante: He’s the future Lord Mansfield. In each generation of the family there’s a designated custodian of their history.
Mbatha-Raw: He took us around and we saw Lord Mansfield’s writing desk. Being with Sarah and having embodied these characters for so many weeks, it was a really special moment to see the painting in the flesh.
Asante: Like Gugu, the first time I saw the painting was on a postcard print, and it had also been sent to me by the tenacious Damian Jones, whose wife is African American and who had herself actually seen the painting at Kenwood House and said there needs to be a film about this. He sent me this postcard, and it came to me in the context that a year earlier I had been at an exhibition in Amsterdam, which was charting the history of black people in European art from 14th century onward. This clearly showed that in the 18th century we were really there as accessories, almost like a pet to express the status of the white protagonist in the painting. We were always lower down in the painting, never looking out at the painter, always looking up in awe at the white counterpart, and always with an arm reaching to towards that person to draw your eye to the focus of the painting. So when the postcard came to me, it allowed me to realize that this was really unique and special. There Dido is staring out at the painter, she’s painted a little higher than Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s arm is reaching out towards Dido, so it completely draws your eye to Dido. For me, it was radical.
This is a movie about courage and love; conditioning versus instinct.
You were quoted as saying that it was like Dido’s instincts were fighting her conditioning.
Asante: Not just Dido, all of them. I’ve always been fascinated by that concept, I think it’s very contemporary and timeless, and it’s in all of us. It’s nature vs. nurture and we negotiate those two things in order to define and relate to our moral code. When one goes against our moral code, how do we find the courage to reach for the other? I think the courageous thing quite often is to step out of your conditioning and go with your instinct. For Dido, she was conditioned early on that she should marry for status, that she should marry someone who is at least equal or above, and has to fight that and go for instinct in the end to find love. But Lord Mansfield is very representative of that theme in the story, his conditioning relates to the world of his peers, and the world that really is profiting from slave trade, but his instinct is that this is morally wrong. And we know that is his instinct, perhaps before he really does, because he takes in Dido.
I wanted another black character that could express many things that I needed in the story, like the issues of maternal legacy, what our mothers pass on to us, and what happens when we’re not lucky enough to be raised by our mothers. So hair, hair is something we women deal with every day and black women have a particular thing about our hair. I wanted this character that could be there to show Dido how to handle herself and to represent that maternal legacy, but also talk about her mother passing that on to her.
Mbatha-Raw: And it’s funny because that character’s name is Mabel, and unbeknownst to anyone in the production, that’s my grandmother’s name. Mabel and Harry – the carriage driver – are actually my grandparents names, and they’re the two characters in the story that sort of facilitate and nurture Dido’s liberation.
Asante: The other important place Mabel must inhabit is to show us who Dido could’ve been if Lord Mansfield hadn’t been such a progressive man. Normally what would’ve happened in those situations is that she would’ve been brought into the family and kept warm and dry and fed, but been a servant. And he completely went against that, along with his wife. They chose to dress her in silks and educate her, but of course she wasn’t completely equal. And that’s why in so many ways this movie is about courage and love; conditioning versus instinct. It’s not a Cinderella story. I wanted to present a woman on screen who is loved, but she has to show them the right way to love her.
The costumes and locations are such striking parts of this film. Can you discuss your approach?
We needed to make the film look lush, sweeping, and big—we weren’t going to put her in a small drama! From the start it was very much about creating a mood-board (before I even knew who the production designer was going to be), and creating a color chart. I tried to express the character’s interior journey through the exterior. So I had this idea that I’d have the two girls early on in the film – while they’re still very innocent – be almost like little dolls in a giant dollhouse. And they’re kind of dwarfed by their world, with high ceilings and big rooms. They were surrounded by – and wore – innocent, pastel colors. And as we move through the film and the girls become wiser about their position in the world, and as you move to London, the rooms become smaller… the colors become more sophisticated. The girls feel bigger in their environment because we’ve made the environment smaller and the colors and costumes more complex. And that’s something I achieved by closely collaborating with my costume designer and production designer.