Q&A with Misan Sagay, Writer of ‘Belle’

The writer of Belle discusses her inspiration for the script and the tensions portrayed by her main character, Dido Elizabeth Belle. 

by Kaylen Ralph

In 2004, when Misan Sagay first conceptualized the story that would become Belle (released in theaters May 2, 2014), she was told by producers that there wasn’t an “audience” for a film about slavery, even if the subject matter was draped in extravagant period dress and disguised as a love story. The critical acclaim with which Belle has been received since opening in New York and Los Angeles May 2 shows that Sagay’s gut instinct for an impactful story was spot on. Belle is the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the aristocratic daughter of a white Royal Navy Admiral and his black mistress, who is sent to live with her great uncle, Lord Mansfield, as a young girl. The film is about Belle’s increasingly frantic search for an identity that has fluctuated her entire life, assuming different masks depending on whose company she may find herself in. In what she describes as a “revolutionary script,” Sagay broaches a question that is as pertinent now as it was in the late 1700s.

Kaylen Ralph: Despite being rooted in actual events and based on a real character, you consider Belle to be historical fiction. Why did you decide to go that route, other than the fact that so much information is lost to us in this day and age?

Misan Sagay: By force, one is writing a work of historical fiction. To shine a light on issues that had relevance then and have relevance today, I think that’s what then determines what way you take the script. (Belle) had many different things happening at different times, but for the purpose of the screenplay it was necessary to telescope all of these things together into one momentous year, season, one moment in her life where all of these things come to a head and we then see how all of these things affected her (and others). (It was) a perfect storm for Belle, and that’s what I wanted.

The heart of the story is Belle’s self-discovery. I wanted to ensure that Belle discovered who she was and said, ‘I’m grasping for what is my right as that person.’ I think that was very important in how I approached this fictionalization.

It’s robustly set in its time, (but) it’s also very modern in that the issues it addresses are issues that are really relevant today. We might not all be Belle, but there’s not a single woman who’s not challenged by images of herself.

KR: What role do you think historical fiction has for a modern day audience, particularly a film like Belle?

MS: In many ways we’re looking at: what is the place of people like Belle in society today? The message I wanted to give, that I hope is there, is this­–that we’re not being granted all these things as someone’s favor, we see them as our right. We have the right to be ourselves, we have the right to respect, we have the right not to be controlled in an unfair way, all kinds of things. And I think those are very contemporary themes.

KR: Did you originally write Dido’s story, this love story, intending it for film? Or were you merely considering it a personal project at first?

I would call Belle a deceptively revolutionary script because at the top of it is this sort of lovely story, but the spirit behind it is pretty radical in some ways, in that it is saying that diversity enriches the human experience, we should all celebrate it, and people like me should grasp for our rights and not accept what’s given to us. I don’t know whether that’s fair, but these are the messages I believe resonate today and are empowering for women, black people and anyone who watches Belle, because every one of us is diverse in some way.

KR: You address many aspects of feminism in the film as well. In the film, Dido has a certain level of freedom, because of her inheritance, that Elizabeth cannot enjoy, and Elizabeth makes a strong point about how women are just men’s property. What was your inspiration for including this underlying theme within the story, which already addressed so many of the “hot topics” we still debate today?

MS: You’ll see there are a lot of women in it…and all of them have something to say about the state of women then, and the state of women today. While everyone says this is Jane Austen, Jane Austen was actually like 30 years into the future, and a king away.

To find voices of women at that time, I went and found archives of a woman contemporary to Lady Mansfield, who kept letters and diaries, and whose husband was…the attorney general (of England). They were similar households. I was able to get a very clear impression of the different rules that were there for the different women, specifically for Belle and Elizabeth.

What their place in society was, was to be completed by the man that would be found for them. That was what their aim was, that they were somewhat defective and the man would complete them. Not the way you complete (each other) as soul mates, and find love, but complete in terms of what you lack.

I thought it was important that we could see that even in those days, the choice to be sexist, the choice to treat a woman badly, was a choice. It wasn’t inevitable, and it isn’t inevitable now. There isn’t anything inevitable or permanent about putting women in a position where they’re used in this sort of way.

Their emotional needs can be taken care of, and I showed that in the way I wrote Lady Mansfield, and I showed that through Lady Mary, the spinster aunt, that is another model of womanhood, where by following all of the rules, this is a woman who is now completely unfulfilled. But the end result of following all these rules is not necessarily extreme happiness and contentment, it can also be frustration, and so, that is another thing. Women are often (told) if you follow all the rules and do everything society expects of you, you end up with everything, when you end up just frustrated. Once again, these are choices that women have to make.

It’s a story of choices for Belle, and not of choices imposed on her.

KR: In the piece you wrote for The Huffington Post, you said that the painting of Elizabeth &  Dido became a metaphor for why “black people must tell their own stories.” What other stories do you think aren’t being told, even today? What other stories would you like to tell?

MS: I think that one of the saddest things, but also one of the most extreme luxuries of being a black filmmaker today, is that almost none of our stories have been told. There are a million stories that are out there: love stories, war stories, Second World War, Roman stories, all through history, history’s been told with a camera pointing away from us. But you know we were there; we were there. And it just needs somebody to swing that camera around and show us what we were doing, and what we were feeling, when that was happening, because that experience is relevant too, and it’s part of the richness of the human experience. So, there are a million stories out there, just as, I’m sure, you, as a woman, you look for the woman there. I, as a black person, look for the black person.

The emancipation story is a universal story in that all of us at some stage need to be able to say we are what we are and we demand respect for that. And I think that story will resonate. In terms of the handling of race, these are the things that really mattered to me: There are many, many, many children out there, who look at, for example, slavery. ‘Why did it happen to us? What was it about us that made it happen? Was it something about us? Is it something we did?’ I think in stories like this, the theme is very much it wasn’t something that was wrong with you, it was something that was wrong with society, and that you look at Belle and she was black as any person who was working in the field at the time, but hey, she happened to be born into this family.

Behind all of this, of course, was money. All these people needed a slave economy to keep all those lovely houses. If you look at that and you say, again, that racism was a choice…it isn’t anything inevitable in the human experience, it’s a choice, and it’s a choice we can make and a choice we can reject. I have people who watch Belle and feel that there isn’t this unbridgeable gulf between people; how we act with each other is actually a choice, and we can make the choice to be good, as well. I hope that comes across in some way.

KR: When did you realize you had the makings of an incredible story on your hands?

In 2004, when I saw the painting again, I really realized that this was a story. That’s when I wrote my first pitch. At that stage it was much more nebulous, because clearly when you look at the painting of the two girls you’re automatically going to center the story on the relationship of the two girls, and I think that was how the film started. Pretty early on into the research, when I found the Zong case, it somehow gripped me. I couldn’t get away from this. At the time (Lord Mansfield) was making this judgment that looked at the value of a human being. He had a black girl he loved in the house, what was her (value)? What value her love? What value his love for her? Every time I tried to really point at the relationship between the two girls, I found that the relationship with Lord Mansfield…is not in the painting, (but) is incredibly strong. Lord Mansfield, the guy not in the painting, controlled the fates of these two girls, controlled who they thought they were. That and looking at the story of the Zong made me know that was going to be the heart of the story.

It’s one of those things that took a little time. Not all the producers were on board. Everyone at that stage was very nervous about slavery as a topic. Who wants to hear about slaves? That was the tough sell. Pretty girls in costumes, even black, was always going to (sell) but slavery, where’s your audience. But I was convinced, I was convinced it could be done. So when I kept sort of drawing a blank over the story, I just wrote the script on my own, and sent that as a sample to HBO and they took it on. The story in a way found itself. You look for your character, and that I believe as a writer is really where my heart is–finding these great characters and putting them on paper. Once you have the characters, they begin to tell their own story, and Belle’s story that she continued to tell was the story of her worth, and we look at that through her relationship with the people that they want her to marry, through her relationship with John, and most of all through her relationship with Lord Mansfield. That’s the heart of how I found the story, and the central theme.

KR: Anything to add?

MS: Diversity isn’t about having people on the screen telling stories from diverse people. Ultimately, real diversity of voice is having different people telling the story. So, it’s terribly important for films like these that people go and see them so we can make more films like these so that we can all begin to see a broader picture of the human experience on film. I just hope people embrace this film. When I was writing it, or when people were talking and they said there wasn’t an audience, I knew there was. I said I can’t be the only one who wants to see this sort of thing. And I think the box office numbers prove that I was right. I’m very pleased and focused and glad the film is out and glad it’s touching so many different people.

Kaylen Ralph is The Riveter‘s co-founder and co-editor.