Misan Sagay, the brilliant and passionate screenwriter of “Belle,” was in Manhattan recently to promote the film. Director Amma Asante and actors Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle), Miranda Richardson and Sam Reid also fielded questions from the press in separate rooms.
Sagay discovered the subject of her Jane Austen-like drama a decade ago when she viewed the 18th’-Century portrait by an unknown artist of a beautiful, biracial woman standing next to a blond, a woman in a pink brocade gown, in the galleries of Scone Palace in Scotland. The blond woman reaches out to the other woman who is slightly above here in the picture, and who wears a silk gown and an exotic headdress. She has a twinkle in her eye and exudes life and even has a sense of mischief. You cannot take your eyes off her.
Here are highlights of the interview with the screenwriter, who is also a medical doctor. Sagay speaks with a precise and clipped English accent, but she exudes warmth and passion, especially when she talks about the genesis and the message of “Belle.”
What was it like to see it fully realized from your script? Was it everything you envisioned?
I think it surpasses what I think that everything at every level more and more was brought to the thing and I think it’s a marvelous movie, so I’m very proud of it.
How did you first discover the story?
I was at university in Scotland. I was a medical student… It’s where William and Kate met. It’s a very traditional university, so quite often I would be the only black person around and so I went to visit Scone Palace and I was walking through and I came to a room and bang, there was a black woman in a painting, and I was stunned andintrigued and thrilled. She didn’t look like a servant or a slave. And I though, ‘Wow!’ and I looked at the caption and it just says, ‘The Lady Elizabeth Murray,’ so Dido is not known. The black woman is unknown. She’s completely silent and I remember carrying this image with me for years and when I went back to Scotland years later and I saw it again, the caption had been changed to ‘The Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido, the Housekeeper’s Daughter.’ I looked at that and I thought, ‘The Housekeeper’s daughter”? She doesn’t look like that, it doesn’t look right, and that was what was the jumping off point for me for the script. Who was she? Who was this woman who was gazing out of this portrait, not just with directness but with a mischief in her face, and who was pointing to her cheek as though, you know, ‘I’m what I am,’ and I really wanted to tell her story.
Did you ever find out why they updated the portrait?
I think it’s almost a Teutonic shift that the older Mansfields were probably less accommodating to the view that this was blood and this was a relative and that the younger generation then are receptive to it. It may be it was updated because people began to ask, up until then no one had asked, and then people had begun to ask. Yes, I think it’s odd that was the story that was put there but that’s what they felt comfortable with I suppose.
It seems like that same story could happen today couldn’t it?
Absolutely. I lot of the research that I did was actually going to speak to people who had been adopted into very, very white environments and yes that story can play out today.
Dido was educated. She could write. There was no reason she hasn’t left a journal. She’s not left a word. This is a girl who lived very carefully about what she said and did. She may have been a Mansfield but she certainly wasn’t free. It was the same feeling I got when I spoke to people who lived in those environments, beloved and taken care of, but always slightly on eggshells.
What did you find out about her father?
That he was an Admiral… But what I found out, the two things that are really interesting, he must in some way he must have lived with Dido’s mother in the West Indies beforehand. And also when he came back to England that his relationship with Dido’s mother fell apart and he then married appropriately but appears never to have lived with that new woman. Whenever you’re doing research you always end up reading stories in the gaps between the stories and my romantic story is that they broke up that relationship and he never loved again. But he certainly never lived properly with his new proper wife, never had children with this new woman.
So you have archival material that no one else saw?
I don’t know that other people didn’t see it. I know that other people, who had seen it, did not – you look at the papers that were out that time – lots of them sort of fudged the issue of who she was. I think it was an issue who she was. I don’t want to say I was the only person, but I was prepared to name – and I wanted to name – what was there. I thought it was a lovely story.
How long did it take for you to develop this story?
I wrote the pitch in 2004 and I began to write the story then, and then the screenplay developed over (time). By 2010 it was over, so it was a long process. It’s a difficult script, many, many difficult decisions had to be taken in order to stay true to this central thing that it would be Belle’s story, so how do we do that? And also what is our aim? Belle herself did not marry until she was 32. It would be perfectly possible to write a long story of her as a life frustrated and a life from which she did not really fulfill herself until after everyone had died. I just didn’t want that for her! I wanted her loved! I wanted her to be beautiful! I wanted somebody to rip off her bodice and want to do so.
I wanted her to be beautiful and so that was why I took that decision that what might be the obvious story was not the way we would go; I would go with a love story.
I also wanted to make sure we looked at this cusp when she would really be discovering, really what being black meant. In the Arcadia of Kenwood and cocooned by childhood and wealth she would not have encountered that until she could encounter the point where she wanted to get married and that there is no place for her… The moment when you understand what your race actually means I think is a big one and I wanted that for her.
What other research did you do to make it factually true to the cultures and to the period?
This kind of thing needs massive research, especially when you’re writing about women. For example, the decision to put women and to have their relationships, which I’m always interested in, to write this sort of Jane Austen romance, made this research absolutely key, that finding the voices of women like this at this time. I was amazingly lucky to stumble on the diary, on the actually diary written by the Countess of Hardwick… much of what was the day to day life we see arise from looking at those women.
I was always looking for emotional truth. There weren’t video camera. We don’t know what actually went on. But it is true in that the Zong case happened. She was in his house. He had to deal with it, so there was a huge amount of that sort of research. (Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England, handed down a decision in this case, which involved the massacre of slaves, and which became instrumental in the abolition of slavery. He also raised Dido as though she were his daughter.)
There are so many parallels with Belle’s story and even with stories of women of color today. What is the message you would like to get out?
It’s terribly important that this is a voice of black women, that’s what this film is. The main thing for me is this issue about your worth.
There are so many messages, and a lot of it is subliminal but from a very young age what are you worth, compared to other people? And I think it was something Belle had to encounter. What was she worth? She was worth loving but she wasn’t worth eating with.
At the moment where Belle herself had to say, you know what? I’m worth me. I’m worth loving and I can have it. And I can be myself and I think that is the message and I think at the end of the day when every screening I’ve attended the women will stand up and clap because the moment when she says that is a great moment for all of us. I think that it’s a terribly empowering moment and I think that that was the aim.
This movie is so unique, just by the mere fact that both the writer and director are black and female. What type of relationship do you guys have?
I was unwell and I left the project. In 2010 Amma came on as director and she – I believe and feel that at the moment where I maybe had flagged, because it had been seven years, but the script was there, the subject was there, everything was there, that Amma was able to take the baton and run with it, and run for her life with it and she has done an extraordinary, extraordinary job. She’s been true to absolutely everything that was the aim from the beginning.
I assume you’re talking a bit about the controversy. (There was a Writers Guild of America decision that credited Misan Sagay as the “Belle” screenwriter.) Whenever you see tough opinionated women, you will see tough opinions. And I think that’s what we have here, but I have nothing but admiration and respect for what she’s done as a director and I think it’s a marvelous movie, marvelous.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a historical story set in Burma during the Second World War. We always think that it’s white people who have fought that battle, which is called the Forgotten War, but in fact it was won by 300,000 black Africans that were taken over there as part of the British Empire and it was a war that Britain was losing and they brought the Africans and they fought their way through the jungle and helped. Without them the War in the East would not have been won but no one’s told their story.
You’re also a medical doctor. How does that inform your writing?
I think it informs my writing because one of the things you that you look for – maybe you all know this without being a doctor – you’re looking for truth. You look at what’s in front of you and you say what is the emotional truth here?
It’s not that different a process for me. I love doing both things. There’s an immediacy to medicine which there isn’t in this. It can take years looking for a story but to me they’re not that different.