The Zong Massacre

Belle

belle_ver2

Director: Amma Asante
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Sam Reid, Matthew Goode, Sarah Gadon, James Norton

South African British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race woman who has the fortune to be rescued by her father and installed at the Hampstead home of his Uncle William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, who also happens to be the Lord Chief Justice for the infamous Zong trial which featured prominently in British society at the end of the 18th century.

The Zong Massacre – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zong_massacre revolved around a British slave ship which jettisoned half its cargo including a great many slaves in the West Indies, drowning them in the Caribbean Sea because there was not enough drinking water on board the slave ship while heading from modern day Ghana to Jamaica.

The Liverpool merchant owners of the slave ship sought insurance compensation for lost cargo which caused a public trial and an outcry back in England as it highlighted the horrors of the 18th century slave trade, naturally bringing up the age old question of can there ever be a price put on a human life. The history of the Zong trial and the massacre of the slaves on board takes centre stage in director Amma Asante’s riveting and slightly contrived social-historical drama Belle.

Like Amazing Grace, Belle centres on the last decades of the British slave trade and portrays a society on the brink of change. Set in England in the 18th century under the reign of King George III (the mad one!), Dido Elizabeth Belle –  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dido_Elizabeth_Belle tells the story of Dido Belle a mixed race heiress and under the guardianship of Lord Mansfield must navigate her way despite her title and wealth through the apparent prejudices of 18th century British society.

Dido_Elizabeth_BellePainting by Johann Zoffany, 1779

Accompanied by her first cousin Elizabeth Murray, played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon (Cosmopolis, A Dangerous Method), who was without a dowry, Belle and Elizabeth need to secure suitable husbands, both of which apparently come in the form of the Ashford brothers James and Oliver played by British actors James Norton (Rush) and Tom Felton of the Harry Potter franchise.

However Belle or Dido as she is referred to in the film has her sights set on an ambitious abolitionist lawyer John Davinier, played by Australian actor Sam Reid (Anonymous) who is assisting the 1st Earl of Mansfield in the legal case regarding the Zong Question as it was politely known in 1783.

belle

Ably assisted by a consummate script written by Misan Sagay, Belle is an absorbing and intelligent social-historical drama, similar to the Michael Apted film Amazing Grace with less of the apparent cruelty of Steve McQueen’s Oscar winning film 12 Years a Slave.

Belle, along with a nuanced performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw features a superb supporting cast including Emily Watson (The Book Thief), Penelope Wilton (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel & Downton Abbey series) and the brilliant Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) as the Earl of Mansfield who takes Belle under his guardianship at Kenwood House, Hampstead.

This is a fascinating portrait of England at the end of the 18th century, whereby race and politics as well as class and legitimacy ruled a conservative society constricted further by prejudice and ruled by desire for European commercial superiority, which despite its horrors was the main reason that the slave trade come into existence and historically changed  the West African, European and Caribbean demographics. For lovers of historical drama with a social conscience, Belle is recommended viewing and an exceptionally interesting film.

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