Inspired by Art: Misan Sagay’s Belle

My fiction writing is often inspired by old photographs. I search the internet–eBay even–and gather a few images that inspire a story in my mind and I go from there. With the current release of the film Belle, I found interest in the fact that the film was inspired by a painting of, as BlackFlix.com notes, “A remarkable 18th-century painting of two young, aristocratic women, one black, one white, seemingly at leisure together.” Even more interesting is that Misan Sagay, the screenwriter for Belle, also wrote the screenplay for 2005’s There Eyes Were Watching God.

To be honest, when I saw 12 Years a Slave (alone, in a theater filled with elderly whites who sniffled and cried at the movie’s conclusion) I remember releasing an uncontrollable sigh during the trailer for Belle, what I assume as just another slave movie. How many do we need per year, really? But Belle is written and directed by black women. Does that make it different? In my eyes, this made the film more deserving of a viewing. Read more on how a painting inspired Misan Sagay to write:

Dido Belle with cousin ElizabethQ: 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.

Although I often try to feign disinterest when it comes to stories and movies with a slave narrative type basis, I’m often drawn into what I try so hard to repel. After all, we know these stories. Is there anything new that can be shown or told? As I consider reading James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, I wonder even more so whether these stories can ever be avoided or overtold (least we forget, right?).

Happy reading, y’all.

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