Belle: The woman who ended slavery?

A new movie follows the life of an 18th Century woman of mixed English and African ancestry. Tom Brook finds out what her story can tell us about today.

“It’s really a period drama about the first biracial aristocrat,” says Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays the title role in new movie Belle. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the great niece of England’s Lord Chief Justice and lived in his London house in the 1780s.

Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) helped the movement proposing the abolition of the British slave trade; this film explores how much that position was affected by Belle. “It’s impossible to deny the fact that having her as his niece and ward, that she would be a complete influence on his decision in the slave trade court,” says Sam Reid, who plays a principled vicar’s son deeply opposed to slavery.

The actors talk to Tom Brook about how much of the film is fictional, and whether its insights are still relevant today. “They’re all underhandedly living off the ownership of other human beings without having to get their hands dirty,” says Reid. In turn, “we’re not questioning where a lot of the things that we have in our lives are coming from, and I think this film reflects that well.”

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