By: Anabel Alfonso and Abigail Jones
Amma Asante is an award-winning writer and director, widely known for her historical film, Belle, created in 2013. The film itself portrays the coming-of-age of a young woman of mixed descent named Dido Elizabeth Belle (played by Gugulethu Mbatha) living in 18th century Britain. Her upbringing under the care of her father’s uncle, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (played by Tom Wilkinson), ultimately influenced his decision over the Zong case. This case, which determined that slaves were not insurable as cargo, was one of the only of its time that supported the rights of slaves as people rather than advancing the aims of the white financial elite. The political shift that this case caused, therefore, can be traced to Dido’s courageous outcry for justice in a society where her status defined both her privilege and her plight. In essence, Dido’s actions coupled with the Zong case decision was the impetus for change in governments, namely those of Britain and the U.S., that previously justified the institution of slavery. These governments would eventually be transformed under a wave of abolitionism that found its beginnings in Lord Mansfield’s Court of King’s Bench where the Zong case was heard and decided
The clip of Dido conversing with Lord Mansfield came from the 2013 movie Belle, which was directed by Amma Asante. Belle. Dir. Amma Asante. Twentieth Century Fox, 2013.
Historical and Cultural Context
The Somerset case provided a precedent for the Zong case. Specifically, the Somerset initiated dialogue over liberty versus property in such a way that liberty was actually upheld. It is no surprise that Lord Chief Justice Mansfield presided over this case, and while his decision did not question the legality of slavery, it confined slavery’s reach. As associate professor of History at the University of Illinois Dana Rabin points out, Mansfield outlawed the forced transportation of slaves away from Britain by discharging Somerset from the custody of captain John Knowles (Rabin 6).
A little over a decade after the closing of the Somerset case in 1772, the proceedings of the Zong case of 1783 were being administered. As portrayed by the film, the crew of the Zong had ample opportunities throughout their voyage from West Africa to the West Indies to replenish water sources that could have supported everyone on the ship. Because of their callous refusal to do so, the lives of over 130 slaves were slain in order to preserve whatever “cargo” they could. This was also done under the pretext that it was exceedingly more profitable to redeem the cost of the slaves they disposed of from their insurers than to continue the voyage with everyone on board. After a retrial, Mansfield ultimately decided that the slaves who were thrown overboard were not insurable as cargo, which rested accountability on the crew of the Zong ship (Krikler 29). Following this case came a wave of abolitionism that resulted in the ratification of a series of acts in either Britain or the U.S.
The first notable act passed after the Zong case was the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 that took effect in both Britain and the U.S., and served to outlaw the international slave trade. Although slave traders continued to trade slaves in certain regions illegally, the passage of this legislation was pivotal in the history of the abolitionist movement. It should be noted that the domestic trade of slaves remained legal in both Britain and the U.S. (“1807 Congress abolishes the African slave trade”). Despite this, atrocities like that of the Zong Massacre became much more preventable, as the most influential governments of the U.S. and Britain would no longer sanction the overseas shipment of slaves.
About 26 years later, the British government would oversee the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act ratified on August 28, 1833, which called for the emancipation of slaves nearly a year later. By August 1, 1834, slaves were to “be to all Intents and Purposes free and discharged of and from all Manner of Slavery, and shall be absolutely and for ever manumitted” (“3° & 4° Gulielmi IV, cap. LXXIII”). Although the U.S. would not abolish slavery for another 32 years, Great Britain provided an example that even the most powerful nations can sustain their growing economies without slavery as their base. As with the Zong case, this monumental shift in stance by the British government would alter the social dynamic between the financial elite and disadvantaged blacks.
By 1850, the U.S. was caught up in political turmoil over the spread of slavery. A settlement over this conflict manifested itself in the Compromise of 1850. The compromise discontinued the spread of slavery so that no new state could introduce slavery within its borders. This also meant, however, that states that had previously sanctioned slavery could continue its practice. As for the capitol, D.C., the importation of slaves was outlawed, but the selling of slaves within the district continued (“Ending Slavery in the District of Columbia”). These conditions would only temporarily mitigate conflict. Soon enough, the South would threaten to secede from the Union, resulting in the Civil War.
Once the Northern states won the Civil War in 1865, slavery in the U.S. was officially abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment. Although freed slaves (particularly in the South) at this time would enter the sharecropping system that placed them in a cycle of debt, forcing them to work almost indefinitely, the acknowledgment that they were free and had to be compensated for their work was groundbreaking. The country as a whole progressed politically and morally, and though many of its constituents were divided in ideology, the premise that slavery was a demoralizing institution ultimately shaped U.S. policy. With the Britain and U.S. united in this front, slavery became globally fragmented. This signaled an end to an era in which the humanity of blacks was greatly doubted.
Themes and Style
Asante used different strategies to develop the cinematography of her film. In many of the film’s scenes, Asante utilizes Shot-Reverse-Shot, in which a character is seen looking at another character offscreen. In many instances, this emphasizes contentious dialogue. The Shot-Reverse-Shot thereby encapsulates the reactions of each character as different scenarios unfold. At one point in the movie, a white man named Oliver Ashford and Dido are engaged. Oliver’s brother, James Ashford, is opposed to their union. James goes on to confront Dido about what her rightful place should be, and uses the opportunity to sexually dassault Dido. This is just one of many painful reminders for Dido that her position within society cannot be defined by either her identity as a mulatto woman or by her financial status, it has to be reconciled by both. Asante employs Shot-Reverse-Shot during this scene to draw a fine line between the two characters, accentuating their immediate conflict and emphasizing their broader division in society. High camera angles in this scene and others were also used to emphasize this divide as well as a number of characters’ perceived superiority to Dido.
Another strategy called two shot, in which two characters are included in one shot, was used for scenes when potential bachelors were courting Dido. This set a more intimate mood that the audience could follow. In some scenes, two shot indicated which romantic interactions were genuine. At an earlier point in the movie, Mr. Davinier and Dido’s interactions were halted when Lord Mansfield explicitly forbade John Davinier from seeing Dido, as Mr. Davinier became too personally involved with the Zong case. Despite this, Dido and Mr. Davinier would still meet to discuss the case. In these scenes, two shot accentuated their political like-mindedness and their growing mutual feelings for each other. One other strategy Asante utilized was lighting. Side lighting intensified a perception of evil or wrong in certain characters while soft/side front lighting presented Dido as pure and virtuous. These kinds of lighting were sometimes incorporated with eye level camera angles to show that Dido was inherently equal to those she interacted with.
In its totality, the film, Belle, is an interpretationn of historical events of which Asante researched for four years. This resulted in the making of a film that portrays Great Britain in the 1780’s and illustrates Dido as a prominent historical figure of the time. This focus on Dido illuminates how she influenced the Zong case, a case that raises the theme of liberty versus property. Focusing on Dido also illuminates the cascading effects her actions had on the abolitionist movement in Great Britain, thereby raising the theme of political upheaval and change. The film also raises the theme of social inequity, as Dido’s mixed ancestry determined the social disadvantages and unequal opportunities she would have to overcome. When compared to modern America, the historical time period of the film seems antiquated and almost irrelevant. However, the film’s blatant criticism of racist attitudes actually alludes to the struggles blacks face today. The stride towards true social equality between African Americans and their white counterparts is not over, and modern figures with the same drive as Dido have and will continue to further this cause.
Several scholars have commented on the film Belle and its implications. For one, Lord Mansfield’s original motivations have been questioned. Scholars are correct to point out that Mansfield framed his decision through logic surrounding insurance and maritime law. But what Asante’s film does wonderfully is depict how impactful the case was in granting slaves a partial sense of humanity, even if the case had not directly addressed the morality of slavery itself. Beyond this, scholars have also commented on the portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth, that inspired Asante to direct the film. Even though there are visible distinctions between Dido and Elizabeth in the painting that suggest their societal differences, the overriding portrayal of equality and harmony between them was virtually unprecedented in other antiquated paintings with blacks as subjects, who were always depicted as inferior or submissive people. Altogether, though scholars have produced warranted critiques and analyses of Belle and its associated history, it is important to keep in mind that the film was intended to shed light on a historical figure who furthered the aims of her people.
In “‘Let Justice Be Done Though the Heavens May Fall’: The Zong in Amma Asante’s Belle,” Adjunct Professor Delaney Smith from Ohio State University and Ohio University and Associate Professor Susan Hatters Friedman from Case Western Reserve University outline the limitations of the historical accuracy of the film Belle. For instance:
The facts of the Zong as presented in the movie are for the most part accurate, but they overlook the fact that Mansfield addressed this as an insurance and maritime law case that hinged on the absolute necessity of killing cargo and not a commentary on the morality of slavery (Smith and Friedman 532).
In “The Zong and the Lord Chief Justice,” Jeremy Krikler, a Reader in History for the University of Essex, also acknowledges that Lord Mansfield’s treatment of these cases were not under the basis of morality. As Krikler notes, “Mansfield’s most infamous argument . . . was his insistence that the slaves be considered as akin to livestock” (Krikler 36). There is no doubt that for a historical film like Belle, events are romanticized to draw in audiences. However, this also allows for audiences to discover the great importance certain historical figures have on the course of social and political change. Even though Lord Mansfield’s motivations can be questioned, what is of even greater importance is that his relationship as an adoptive father to Dido allowed him to decide in favor of slaves.
In “The power of context: the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray,” former head of history Jane Card from the Didcot Girls’ School in Oxfordshire discusses the historical aspects of the film as well as the portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth, that inspired the film. As the title of the article suggests, the portrait of Dido and Elizabeth, according to Card, only holds meaning because of its context. Since “images do not project fixed meanings,” gathering enough historical or background information about the source of an image is critical (Card 8). While it is not known who commissioned the painting, who painted it, or why it came to be, it is remarkable that Dido and Elizabeth were presented as equals. These circumstances, draw scholars into wondering how Asante’s film addresses the speculative truth behind the painting. Card points out that in historical films “characters are anachronistically shown to hold ideas in which modern viewers can sympathize,” as with the film’s misplaced focus on Lord Mansfield’s morality, and that “gaps in available evidence . . . have to be filled with plausible events,” as was done in the film when Lord Mansfield was shown to have been the commissioner of the portrait (Card 13).
This ties into “Framing Sensibility: The Female Couple in Art and Narrative,” in which professor Chris Roulston at the University of Western Ontario analyzes various paintings of female couple/sister portraits throughout history. She includes the portrait of Dido and Elizabeth and brings up different aspects of the girls to life. For one, there is a contrast between Dido’s “conventionally exoticisized” mode of dress and Elizabeth’s perceived intellectuality (Roulston 648). The differences in appearance and action that Roulston bring to light also compels scholars to analyze further the distinct relationship between Dido and Elizabeth. While it is not doubted they are portrayed as equals, evident by Elizabeth reaching out towards Dido and the smiles on their faces, there are other aspects of the painting that illustrate their social differences. These social differences, along with their harmony as cousins, cannot be missed in Asante’s film.
Card, Jane. “The Power of Context: The Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray.” Teaching History, 160 (2015): 8-15. Wec. 24 Oct. 2017.
“Ending Slavery in the District of Columbia.” DC.gov, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2017.
Krikler, Jeremy. “The Zong and the Lord Chief Justice.” History Workshop Journal 64.1 (2007): 29-47. Web. 24 Oct. 2017.
Rabin, Dana. “‘In a Country of Liberty?’: Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness in the Somerset Case (1772).” History Workshop Journal 72.1 (2011): 5-29. Web. 24 Oct.2017.
Roulston, Chris. “Framing Sensibility: The Female Couple in Art and Narrative.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 46.3 (2006): 641-655. Web. 24 Oct. 2017.
Smith, Delaney and Friedman, Susan Hatters. “‘Let Justice Be Done Though the Heavens May Fall’: The Zong in Amma Asante’s Belle.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online 42.4 (2014): 530-532. Web. 24 Oct. 2017.
“1807 Congress abolishes the African slave trade.” History, n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2017.
“3° & 4° Gulielmi IV, cap. LXXIII An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves.” HMS Surprise. Davis, Peter, n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2017.”
Asante, Amma. “Director Amma Asante on the inspiration behind her film Belle.” Independent, 19 June 2014. Web. 4 Oct. 2017.
Minney, Sarah “The Search for Dido.” History Today 55.10 (2005): 2. Web. 4 Oct. 2017.
Robertson, James. Review of The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery, by Walvin, James. Historian, 75.3 (2013): 640-641. Web. 4 Oct. 2017.
Rupprecht, Anita. “‘A very uncommon case’: representations of the Zong and the British campaign to abolish the slave trade.” The Journal of Legal History 28.3 (2007): 329-346. Web. 14 Nov. 2017.
Rupprecht, Anita. “‘A Limited Sort of Property’: History, Memory and the Slave Ship Zong.”Slavery & Abolition 29:2 (2008): 265-277. Nov. 2017.
Dido, Belle, Mansfield, Zong, Slavery, Abolitionism, Great Britain