POSTED April 27 2014

Every picture tells a story

Dido Belle and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray

Dido Belle and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray

Like the painting attributed to Johann Zoffany, the film that resulted in Belle, opening Friday in New York, is about blacks and women emerging from the social background to its foreground. Also much like Zoffany’s image, it is a story of an unfamiliar woman painted in a familiar style.

The mystery woman in the portrait and focus of the film is Dido Elizabeth Belle, who lived from 1761 to 1804. Dido (as she is called in Amma Asante’s movie, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was the daughter of an enslaved African and a British admiral. She and her cousin Elizabeth (played by Sarah Gadon) were raised as sisters by their great-uncle, William Murray, Lord Mansfield  (Tom Wilkinson). It is likely that Dido’s relationship with Murray, the Lord Chief Justice of England, influenced his thinking on issues of race and equality.

 A painting of the sister-cousins inspired screenwriter Misan Sagay and filmmaker Asante to frame the story as Sense and Sensibility with an Anglo-African in the role as th sensible Elinor-like sibling.

Here’s a piece I wrote about the film. There are many films in which a painting is central to the narrative. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Portrait of Jennie and Rebecca all come to mind. Can you think of others?

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