Making the Grades
What price can be placed on a human life? In late 1700s England, an era of lucrative slave trading and enshrined class distinction, the answer to that question cannot be calculated without taking race and rank into account.
In the case of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Lauren Julien-Box), inconsequential might have been the verdict for this child born of a Negro slave and a Royal Navy Admiral, had not her father honored his parental responsibilities. Valuing her as a precious daughter, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) places her in the care of his uncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson) while he undertakes his next royal commission.
However, Dido’s illegitimate status and black coloring make her a liability for William, who is not only the titled Earl of Mansfield but the Lord Chief Justice as well. Despite an initial lack of enthusiasm, he and his wife (Emily Watson) agree to act as the guardian of the girl. They reason she may be a suitable companion for Elizabeth Murray (Cara Jenkins), another abandoned niece they have adopted.
Yet as Dido grows to womanhood (now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), it is she who is uncertain of her worth. Although loved by her Great Uncle and Aunt, and treated like a sister by Elizabeth (now played by Sarah Gadon), her obvious differences place her in a social status too high for the servants’ class, but still below that of her family. And when the time comes to seek husbands, the possible prospects for her and her cousin become even more divided.
It isn’t until she hears of a trial to be ruled over by her prominent uncle that Dido realizes her unique background may have a benefit. The Zong Case (also known as the Zong Massacre) involves a group of slaves that were thrown overboard during shipment because the crew didn’t have enough drinking water for both themselves and their human cargo. Inspired by the ideas of her Uncle’s law apprentice John Davinier (Sam Reid), Dido embraces the abolition movement that is beginning to creep into the consciousness of the British Empire. Still, can her own life serve as a reason for her Uncle to rule against the sailors, or will the pressure he feels to support England’s commercial interests trample the tender relationship the pair has previously enjoyed?
Based on a true story, the significance of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s existence has only recently been brought to the public’s attention. Although the part she plays in history can only be guessed at, the film’s creators have used what is known of her story to craft a beautiful tale of love, tolerance and human dignity. With little content to concern family viewers, this portrait of a tenacious woman shows how one small life can have a bigger influence. Her example embodies the priceless ideal that doing what is right is never impossible—even though it may seem that way.
Release Date: LIMITED: US: 2 May 2014 / Canada: 23 May 2014
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Belle.
This movie is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised by her great uncle William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield. Among the things he is noted for is his position as Lord Chief Justice, where his judgment in the Somersett’s Case helped pave the way for abolishing slavery in England. He was also involved in the trial of the Zong Massacre, which is depicted in the film.
In the movie Dido is referred to as a “mulatto,” which was a derogatory slang term for someone of mixed race (white and black). Why do you think her heritage was disgusting to some and fascinating to others? How did her genteel breeding make her even more of an oddity in her society?
Elizabeth compares her status as a woman to that of a slave. Why does she feel the rules for acquiring a husband in English high society makes her a commodity? Is marriage really akin to finding a master? What circumstances hamper Elizabeth’s chances of a happy union? How are they different from Dido’s? In what ways are they the same?
Because the slave trade was such a lucrative industry, it was able to put a lot of pressure on the government and the law. Are there any commercial enterprises today that wield that kind of power?