For Gugu Mbatha-Raw and period dramas, it’s a breakthrough ‘Belle’

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in "Belle."
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Think of it as the corset drama unlaced.

Directed by Amma Asante from a screenplay by Misan Sagay, the new film “Belle” features a breakthrough performance for actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Born the illegitimate daughter of a British navy captain and an African woman believed to be a slave, Belle was raised alongside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon) by their great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), an influential jurist in his position as lord chief justice of England.

Based on a true story, the movie, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, is something of a hybrid, mixing period romance, social drama and courtroom procedural. It delves into issues of race, class and gender along with the underpinnings of slavery in Britain.

The film had its origins when Sagay came upon a 1779 painting of two young women, one black (Belle) and one white (Lady Elizabeth) who occupy relatively equal space in the frame, unusual for the time. Sagay began researching more about Belle, exploring the connection between her and Lord Mansfield and how their relationship may have influenced his legal decisions, which set the stage for the end of the British slave trade.


“I loved that paradox,” said Sagay. “Especially in Britain, everyone feels terribly comfortable with the idea that slavery was something that happened in the Deep South of America, with men with whips beating people, and all the rest of us are clean. But that’s just not true. And I wanted to bring slavery into the heart of Jane Austen, into the drawing rooms of England.”

Sagay’s script eventually landed with producer Damian Jones (“The Iron Lady”) and Asante, who previously directed the award-winning 2004 feature “A Way of Life.” After Mbatha-Raw was first told of the story, she bought a postcard of the painting, leaving it pinned to the wall of her room for the years it took to get the film made. (She would only see the actual painting after filming had finished, when she took a trip with costar Gadon to Scone Palace in Scotland where it now hangs.)

Throughout the film, whose cast also includes Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Miranda Richardson, Sam Reid and Tom Felton, Belle is confronted by how her very presence challenges the hierarchies of British aristocratic life.

“One big question in the film is who defines you, society or yourself,” said Asante. “If society says she’s the child of a slave, but she looks like a lady, whose opinion matters the most? If society sees her as a lady based on her wealth, but she feels like the child of a slave, what input does that have on her journey to identity and success?

“It’s a matter of her finding a place where she can combine all those things: aristocrat, slave, black, white and say, ‘I’m OK with that, I’m all of those things.’”

“Belle” had its world premiere last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, which was also one of the earliest destinations for the historical race drama “12 Years a Slave” on its way to winning three Oscars, including best picture. (The two films also share a distributor in Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

If one of the talking points that surrounded “12 Years” was the perception that audiences would find its depiction of slave life too alienating to watch, the stately homes, ruffled finery and social graces of “Belle” circumvent that issue while still grappling with the moral and legal ramifications of slavery itself.

“To be quite honest with you, we were making ‘Belle’ at the same time ’12 Years a Slave’ was being made and I didn’t connect the two at all. I can see we’re probably two sides of the same coin,” Asante noted. “I’d like to think ‘Belle’ will be able to stand on its own two feet and stand alone in its telling Dido’s story and that it has its own context. I hope we’re not just seen as the little sister of ’12 Years a Slave.’ I hope we will be able to contribute to the discussion of our history and where we are today.”

“12 Years a Slave” also provided a platform for the breakthrough of actress Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar, signed a lucrative, high-profile cosmetics endorsement contract and was recently named People magazine’s most beautiful person.

Whether “Belle” provides a similar launch for Mbatha-Raw remains to be seen. For many audiences the film will be the first time they have taken real notice of her, but she is no overnight sensation.

After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she appeared onstage in England as Juliet opposite a pre-”Spider-Man” Andrew Garfield as Romeo and went to Broadway with a production of “Hamlet” as Ophelia, starring Jude Law in the title role. She appeared in the movie “Larry Crowne” with Tom Hanks and starred in the short-lived American television series “Undercovers” and “Touch.”

She has also already shot roles in the upcoming Andy and Lana Wachowski film “Jupiter Ascending,” in a role she described as half-human, half-deer, and as a pop singer in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Blackbird.”

Even with her notable credits, Mbatha-Raw has never been cast in the sort of corseted period dramas that are still a staple of British film and television.

“Doing the classical training and seeing so many of my peers being in period things, I had this romantic idea that it would be really nice to play a Jane Austen-esque character,” said Mbatha-Raw. But she adds, “I had never felt a lack of it, because I’ve always been working, so I was never like, ‘boohoo why can’t I be on ‘Downton Abbey.’”

The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle is portrayed as one of a quietly revolutionary spirit, one woman fighting simply to be herself and recognized as such by society. The movie “Belle” is in some way driven by the same impulses, with three women of color in key roles as director, writer and star, putting an inclusive, socially conscious spin on the romantic costume drama.

“It is such a hard slog when you are a woman and a woman of color and you love these movies and they don’t love you back,” said Dodai Stewart, deputy editor of the website Jezebel. “It feels seismic, in a way. It just sort of opens the possibilities.”

“For me it’s a relief to have this perspective told,” said Mbatha-Raw. “I feel like now little girls growing up, they get to watch ‘Belle.’ Which I think is important in terms of identity, to know you have roots.”