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Ebertfest 2018: Eight Things I Learned About Belle from Amma Asante

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The Roger Ebert Film Festival celebrated its 20-year anniversary with 12 movies, six directed by women. The late 18th Century period drama “Belle” (2013) was directed by British-Ghanain filmmaker Amma Asante, and starred Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Belle, the West Indies-born biracial daughter of the nephew of the Lord Chief Justice of England. The Thursday night screening was followed by an onstage panel featuring Asante, critic and essayist Rebecca Theodore-Vachon, and Chaz Ebert, the festival’s co-founder. 

Eight things I learned about “Belle” from director Asante:

Father passed: The film’s fact-based relationship between Lord Mansfield and Dido was “an ode to my own father who passed away during the making of the film.”

Two English roses: The movie took inspiration from the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. “Right when I looked at it, I saw two English roses. The same way roses come in many types, I wanted to say to you guys as an audience … let me also present to you an English rose you may have never seen before.”

Taking a seat: “By showing Elizabeth being at the table, I was able to really emphasize Dido not being at the table. I think that’s a great metaphor for today.” 

Something extra: "Gugu Mbatha-Raw has such a great presence. The key thing is that there were lots of amazing young women that were brilliant actresses. But what Gugu has is an innate elegance.”

The resume: “I didn’t go to film school. And I hope that’s a call to all young women and young men out there who didn’t go to film school.” 

Typing school: “I started as a child actress and I was terrible! I was so bad … when I was 21, I gave up acting but I didn’t want to leave the business. I wanted to continue to be in a world that told stories. So I started writing, mainly to get my typing speed up; my mom had sent me to typing college.”

Pseudonym: “I sent out (the screenplay) in the UK with my mother’s maiden name as a pseudonym because lots of producers in the UK know me as a child actress. And I didn’t think they would take me seriously."

More than coincidence?: “I was living in the Netherlands during the time that we were making the film, so I had to come over to the UK. So I had to find an apartment to rent. My sister came over to me and said: ‘Did you know the apartment you have chosen is on the very street John Davinier and Dido Belle lived when they first got married?’ London is not small, so for that to happen is incredible. I felt like that was Belle’s endorsement saying, ‘I’m cool with you telling my story.’”

Niani Scott is a 2017-18 Roger Ebert Fellow at the University of Illinois College of Media.

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