When screenwriter Misan Sagay visited the storied Scone Palace in Scotland, an 18th century painting of a pair of aristocratic women — one a woman of color, the other white — caught her eye.
Despite the antiquity of the painting, the women were positioned and clothed in equal fashions — an arrangement that intrigued the screenwriter. It started her hunt — years combing through archives — to piece together the history of those two women. Her research informed the screenplay for “Belle,” the film based on the darker-skinned woman in the portrait, opening in theaters today.
British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw portrays the title character, Dido Elizabeth Belle, born the biracial daughter of an Navy Admiral and African woman in 1761. Sent to live with her aristocratic uncle, Dido straddles two disparate worlds, struggling to find her place in a British high society that both beckons and snubs her.
Directed by Amma Asante, “Belle” attracted strong notices during its run at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, where another historical drama (“12 Years a Slave”) stunned crowds and went on to nab the top prize at the Oscars.
Might “Belle” be the next historical film starring people of color to generate Hollywood buzz?