NEW YORK CITY — Screenwriter Misan Sagay is perhaps best known for writing Oprah Winfrey’s 2005, made-for-TV movie “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which starred Halle Berry.
However, it is Sagay’s big-screen, period-piece drama, “Belle” that is currently garnering critical acclaim since recently becoming the darling of movie festivals in cities such as Toronto, New York, Sonoma and Palm Springs, California.
“Belle,” which opens nationwide May 16, is a fascinating movie set in the 18th Century. It is based on the true story of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (played wonderfully by newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Dido was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode, TV’s “The Good Wife”) and an enslaved African woman named Maria Belle. When Maria Belle died, Admiral Sir John Lindsay took Dido to be raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, upcoming “Selma”) and his wife (Emily Watson, “War Horse”). While Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, her skin color hinders her from fully becoming accepted by society.
The layers to Belle’s deeply moving story, goes beyond race and this was one of many reasons screenwriter Misan Sagay says she became so fascinated by this young African American woman and how she was able to overcome her circumstances.
Sagay discussed what the movie “Belle” means to her, the arduous journey to get it made and into theatres and why she believes this story needs to be told.
Q: Is it true that your inspiration to make the movie “Belle” came from a painting?
A: Yes, that’s correct. While touring Scone Palace in Scotland, I walked into one of the bedrooms and I came across a painting with a Black woman in it. And I was absolutely stunned to see this Black person in a painting that was created in 1779. I looked at the caption on the painting and it said, “The painting of the Lady Elizabeth Murray. She wasn’t named and yet this woman was such a presence in the painting. I always remembered that. Although the painting is unsigned, historians believe that it is by Britain portraitist Zoffany. Fast forward a few years and I visited Scone again. This time the woman had been named in the picture as Dido The Housekeeper’s Daughter. I looked at the painting and I just couldn’t believe it. I said she doesn’t look like a housekeeper’s daughter. It struck me that there was a relationship between these girls. Plus, why would they place the housekeeper’s daughter in a painting? I began to dig into the story and I was doing some work and I found out about Lord Mansfield. That was when I really began to think that there really is a story here. Just completely by luck, I found out that my son’s Godmother knew Lady Mansfield the Countess of Mansfield, very, very well. So we began to negotiate for me to talk and find out more. We finally agreed for me to come in and look at the archives. I thought there would be boxes in a cold, old attic. (She laughs). Luckily in a very cold attic there were Lord Mansfield’s actual notebooks. You could hold them. He wasn’t a forthcoming man. But he wrote all of his verdicts in them and he would scribble in the margins personal notes. It was in those personal notes that I found my story. With all of these things you read between the lines. I came to this project determined to tell Dido’s story.
Q: Were you surprised to find out Dido was so educated?
A: Yes, that struck me as well. She could write and she wasn’t like a lot of ladies at the time. In Lord Mansfield’s notes he would say that Dido wrote this. She wrote to his dictation. Keep in mind that this is someone who could have kept a journal and written something about herself. I read into that she was quiet. She couldn’t express herself because she didn’t know how it would be received. And so she was ever so careful. When you’re looking at a story like this, yes you look at the research, but it’s only a jumping off point because I’m trying to give a voice to someone who doesn’t have a voice in history. That meant a lot to me.
Q: Can you talk about what Gugu Mbatha-Raw brought to the role? Did she exceed your expectations?
A: Gugu (Mbatha-Raw) is just marvelous. First of all it’s like she could have been transported here from the 18th Century. She has a marvelously appropriate face and her clothes hang on her so beautifully. You’d think when she gets up in the morning that she looks like this because she’s just so radiantly beautiful, but also a marvelous actress. Whenever as a writer you write something you hope that actor directly brings something else to it. What Gugu has done is taken what was there and flown with it.
Q: How long did the entire screenwriting process take and did anyone ever say to you along the way that people wouldn’t be interested in seeing this type of movie?
A: The first pitch went out in 2004 and we moved from then onward. When I first started yeah, people said nobody wants to hear about slavery. In fact, I was told that if I could just drop the slavery angle then I’d have a movie (Lots of Laughter).
Q: While writing these characters was there anyone that you were dead set on having?
A: When I was writing the part, I had a picture of Tom Wilkinson right in front of me. That was who I felt would be able to bring this to life. He makes his role look easy. He’s wonderful, but really so is everybody in this movie.
By Lana K. Wilson-Combs
Lana K. Wilson-Combs is an entertainment writer for THE OBSERVER and an on-air movie critic for radio station KFBK 1530 AM and 93.1 FM. You can hear her movie review segments every Friday at on KFBK at 6:40 p.m. on the Kitty O’Neal show and you can read her movie reviews on her Web site at www.n2entertainment.net.