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UPDATES On Brit Amma Asante's Slavery-Set Pic On Life Of Mixed-Race Woman Raised In Aristocratic Family

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by Tambay A. Obenson
February 10, 2012 11:21 AM
8 Comments
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About 2 months ago, I profiled black British actor/writer/director/producer Amma Asante's (above) period drama about the trials and tribulations of a mixed-race girl titled Belle, from a script which she co-wrote.

A quick recap... the story takes place in the 1780s, and follows a mixed-race girl, adopted into an aristocratic family, who faces class and color prejudices. As she blossoms into a young woman, she develops a relationship with a vicar's son who is an advocate for slave emancipation.

The project which was budgeted at £6.5 million ($10.1 million), was scheduled to begin production this summer.

I learned a bit more about this project worth sharing here; first, it's actually based on a true story, which I certainlt wasn't aware of before. Specifically, it's based on the true story of Dido Belle, a mixed-race woman raised as an aristocrat in 18th-century England.

So i did some digging to find out more about Dido Belle and learned that her full name was Dido Elizabeth Belle, born 1761, died 1804; she was the illegitimate daughter of John Lindsay (a white British Naval officer) and an African slave woman known only as Belle.

Dido lived a significant part of her life with her great-uncle (on her father's side) the Earl of Mansfield who lived with his family at Kenwood House in Hampstead, England - a stately home where great statesmen and their families lived through the years, but is now a public space, housing expensive painting collections, and where classical performances have been held.  

Dido spent some 30 years at Kenwood House, in an unusual position because she was the daughter of a slave (despite her white elite father and upbringing). But she was treated as a member of the family, to a certain extent; Dido was not allowed to eat at the same table with the rest of the family, especially if they had guests; but was allowed to sit with the women for coffee and ladily chats afterwards in the drawing-room. 

She was responsible for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped the Earl Mansfield with his penning his letters - essentially acting as his secretary, which obviously indicates that she was likely fairly well educated.

Dido also received an annual allowance that was considered several times the usual pay for a servant.

There's more, but you kind of get the idea I hope. Obviously a lot to chew on, and would make for quite a revelatory film; so I can understand Amma Asante's interest in it. 

Plus it's based on a real story that I certainly wasn't aware of, and I'm sure many of you weren't either.

It was announced yesterday at the European Film Market in Berlin that Bankside Films, a UK-based international film sales company has stepped in and acquired Belle for its upcoming sales slate. They're calling it a "hot property" which is encouraging. Of course the film still has to be made; but this pick-up increases the likelihood that it will be, and that distribution prospects are also improved.

This will be Amma Asante's second feature; her feature debut was a 2004 "gritty" and "compelling" South Wales-set racism drama titled A Way Of Life, which she also wrote. And for her work on that film, she was blessed with the BAFTA's (the british equivalent of the OscarsCarl Foreman Award for best debut by a British filmmaker, as well as being named The Times Breakthrough Artist Of The Year.

I haven't seen her feature film debut, so I have no comment. It's not easy to find on this side of the pond.

But Belle is already on my watch list, so any developments will be reported here.

In the meantime, check out this short retelling of Dido Belle's story that I found on YouTube:

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8 Comments

  • biwtican | February 11, 2012 11:31 PMReply

    she seems more like their cherished pet. that is not the same as acceptance as a equal human who happened to be black.

  • Kia | February 10, 2012 6:18 PMReply

    Since you brought this production to our attention the first time, I added A Way of Life to my Netflix queue--you can find it there.

  • Tambay | February 10, 2012 6:32 PM

    Thanks Kia - it only just occurred to me that I have a streaming only Netflix account, so when I perform searches, it returns those that are available for streaming, which "A Way Of Life" isn't. So I missed it!

    But good to know it's available in some form in the USA.

  • Boomslang | February 10, 2012 6:14 PMReply

    The subject has been explored , albeit poorly here the imdb link : http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1356950/.
    What a bland and predictible subject.Female directors of all stripes explore themes that take place in domestic spaces .This is so dull !

  • FYI | February 10, 2012 11:59 AMReply

    Well, it's interesting. But if you want to read more on the (late) breaking story and others like it check out: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/
    Many of these stories are rather close to home in the US (i.e the Fairfax Family of Virginia, Heather Locklear, Vanderbilts and so on) and all the senior lines of the white Southern elite. And, PBS had it first.

  • kayle | February 10, 2012 11:46 AMReply

    Fascinating! I wasn't aware of it, but I'm not surprised about it, I'm sure there are many true stories like these out there that need to be told, but we probably won't get to hear them because the powers that be won't like it being known that a black woman was loved and wanted by a white man back during that era.

  • kayle | February 10, 2012 11:46 AMReply

    Fascinating! I wasn't aware of it, but I'm not surprised about it, I'm sure there are many true stories like these out there that need to be told, but we probably won't get to hear them because the powers that be won't like it being known that a black woman was loved and wanted by a white man back during that era.

  • Yvette Ganier | February 10, 2012 11:41 AMReply

    In the world of slavery I'm sure there were lots of stories akin to Dido's. It's a rare pleasure that we are hearing about it. The fact that a film is on board to be made is awesome. I look forward to reading the updates about the production as they come in. Thanks for your work, Tambay!

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