Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s first glimpse of her character in the British film Belle came on a postcard. It was of a 1779 painting attributed to Johann Zoffany of an aristocratic African woman, playing hand in hand with her white cousin. It’s a warm, playful portrait, inviting the viewer into the girls’ private world, and almost, it seems, sharing with us a joke they are sharing with each other.
Beyond its surface appeal — the playfulness, in particular of the black girl, who beckons to her friend and to us; the beauty of the two subjects; and their exquisite clothes — the painting represents an extraordinary moment in art history. It’s one of the only portraits of the era to depict a black sitter as an aristocratic subject rather than as a slave or servant. Two hundred years later, writer Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante have taken their cue from the questions this woman’s life must have presented to her world and its assumptions.
Gugu was pointed towards the image by producer Damian Jones (best known for films such as The History Boys and The Iron Lady). It was the 28-year-old’s introduction to the biggest role of her career to date. The film is a nuanced and moving examination of Britain’s role in the slave trade, told through the microcosm of one profoundly conflicted family. While Zoffany’s painting is a portrait of ease, Asante’s film gives us ease mingled with heartache.
Sagay’s sleuthing established that the two girls, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray (known as Belle and Bette), were half-cousins brought up as sisters at Kenwood House in London. Belle was the lovechild of a naval captain, John Lindsay, who when her mother died persuaded his great uncle, Lord Mansfield, to bring her up — much to the horror of many of his circle. Lord Mansfield himself eventually played a key part in the abolition of the slave trade.
History can only relate so much, but as it is imagined in the film, society’s reaction to Belle is complicated further by her beauty and wealth. But for the colour of her skin, posits Asante, she would have been a highly prized asset in the landed gentry’s marriage market, the viciousness of which we know so well from Jane Austen.
When we meet at the Soho Hotel, Gugu recalls being offered the role: ‘I really did think, wow.’ The daughter of an English nurse and a South African doctor, Gugu grew up in Oxfordshire, and she views Austen and Dickens adaptations as part of her ‘cultural DNA’ and says that she had ‘always wanted to do a period drama’.
Gugu — whose CV lists acclaimed productions of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Manchester Exchange, and Hamlet, opposite Jude Law, at the Donmar and then on Broadway — maintains that, on stage, ‘people don’t worry so much about colour-blind casting’ before adding that that’s is a term that she hates. ‘For film, I think because it’s more detailed, and especially with historical material, you really have to find the right projects.’ As she rightly maintains, while there must be many stories like Belle’s out there, they are not stories that have often been told. As she has said, ‘Speaking as a mixed-race woman, there aren’t many historical stories about people like me. When people think of “dual heritage” they think it’s a modern concept, but really it’s not.’
Though it has been many years in pre-production, in terms of its release, Belle comes soon after 12 Years a Slave amid renewed conversations on both sides of the Atlantic about slavery. While Steve McQueen offered a typically visceral depiction of the physical and psychological torment of slavery, the slave trade is kept at the periphery of Belle, as it is in Mansfield Park. Asante’s settings are drawing rooms and gardens and grand English houses, where the veneer of manners does not prevent the employment of barbed insults, and where the permanent tension between the right thing and the done thing is challenged by Belle’s very presence.
In the US, where it was released earlier this summer, Belle drew attention not just for its emotive and unusual material but for what Girls creator Lena Denham termed the ‘girl-heavy’ production credits in an industry where female directors and screenwriters rarely see their projects come to fruition. It’s a topic on which Gugu is refreshingly frank. ‘I don’t really want to just play the girlfriend or the love interest,’ she says. ‘I get so many scripts like that and, not to moan because I’m really fortunate, but I just look at those scripts and my heart sinks a little bit because I think there’s so much more to us than that.’
Cleopatra, perhaps the greatest love interest of all time, is on the list of roles she would love to take on, an admission she delivers with a puckish grin that suggests that for all her likeability (she charms the socks off everyone on our photo shoot) she’s a woman who thinks big too.
As Gugu points out, Belle’s story is about justice. ‘One of my favourite lines, that I think Emily Watson [who plays Lord Mansfield’s wife] has, she says, “Sometimes you can’t fight change, because you’re a part of it” and I feel that in the context of these films that are happening now, there is a kind of change coming in terms of how history is represented on film, and the African, and the African-American and British African experience.’
By the same token, while the statistics remain skewed towards men, she doesn’t think they tell the whole story: ‘The last couple of roles that I’ve played, particularly, [have been on] very female-centric films, and it’s exciting because I think that for so long that perspective has not been told in a three-dimensional way, and to have complicated female characters, conflicted female characters, that’s what I’m interested in.’
Meeting Gugu, after seeing Belle, I get another glimpse of the combination of vulnerability and mettle that makes her portrayal of the girl in the painting so moving. (Someone really should cast her as Cleopatra.) When we meet in London, she’s looking forward to a rare weekend rambling around the countryside with her mum at home. We end by swapping notes on her new neighbourhood, West Hollywood, in a city that, as she puts it, can inspire ‘waves of culture shock’. You can’t help but see it as an awfully long way from the Cotswolds.
‘I’ve gotten used to it, that’s what I can say. I’m learning to enjoy it,’ she says. If that’s a diplomatic admission of homesickness, it’s a very endearing one. Old friends, yoga and her travels (most recently with her dad to South Africa for the first time), keep her grounded, as does focusing on enjoying the creative side of LA. ‘I think the thing you have to be wary of is getting too bogged down in the business side of it. If you’re an artist it’s great to have a knowledge of the business and be educated about that, but you’ve got to keep the balance right between business and artistry, otherwise you get cynical.’
Elements of the film industry — obsessed with money, youth, beauty, and hiding anything unpleasant beneath surface pleasantries — would give any modern social chronicler an awful lot of material. Gugu is right to say it would be an easy place to get cynical. For someone so very beautiful, open and engaging, I hope it somehow remains a place where it’s possible to stay idealistic too.
Belle is in cinemas now.