Early in the period drama “Belle,” out Friday, a little girl — who has recently lost her black mother and has only just met her white father — stands in a giant hall and looks at a painting. It’s the only painting in sight that includes another person of color, a little boy. The boy stares up adoringly at the white man who occupies the center frame. It’s the kind of painting that British director Amma Asante had seen long before she began work on the movie.
“My husband had taken me to an art exhibit in Amsterdam called ‘Black Is Beautiful,’ which was about how black people appeared in European art from the 14th century onward,” Asante says. “And in every one, they were an accessory, a pet, there to express the status of the main protagonist. They were always lower down, never looking at the painter — they’d be reaching up to draw your eye to that person. It was like how people were painted with their hunting dogs, their horses, that kind of thing.”
A year later, Damian Jones, one of “Belle’s” producers, sent Asante a postcard of a very different painting, of Dido Elizabeth Belle (the real-life counterpart of the movie’s central character) and her cousin Elizabeth — a 1779 artwork that occupies an incredibly important space in the film.
“Immediately I was able to see this painting of Dido and Elizabeth was different. Dido is higher, she’s looking out directly, Elizabeth’s hand is touching Dido, guiding your eye to Dido,” she says. “In creating the film, what I wanted to do was bring you my journey, so you understand why the painting is unique.”
In the film, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised by her uncle and aunt (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) after her naval officer father heads to sea. She gets many of the advantages entitled to her as a member of the aristocracy, but is denied many of them because of the color of her skin (she eats with the family unless there are guests because her presence at the table might offend some of them). As with all women of her time and class, it’s understood that her ultimate goal is to get married, but it’s also understood that her ethnicity essentially makes this impossible. There aren’t any rules for how Dido is supposed to fit in, and that’s both confining and freeing, Asante says.
“I wanted to ask the question, ‘Who defines us — society or ourselves?’ ” Asante says. “If society simply sees her as the child of a slave but she feels like the child of an aristocrat, what is the most important predictor of her success?”
For Asante, that predictor is Dido herself, and it’s her journey toward embracing her unique identity that is the main thrust of the film.
“At the end, she can see [she’s a] child of a slave, a child of an aristocrat, all these things,” Asante says. “And ultimately she sees herself as someone who is loved.”