Inspired by real people and events, the movie was directed by Amma Asante from a screenplay by Misan Sagay.
In the film, Mbatha-Raw plays Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, who brings her as a child to live with his wealthy, powerful and kindly uncle, Lord Mansfield, after her mother dies and he must return to his ship. Raised and educated as a cherished member of the family, this lovely, accomplished, young woman still finds her skin color prevents her from fully being accepted by society. Sam Reid plays John Davinier, the idealistic, white law student who adores Belle.
"I was so excited," Mbatha-Raw told UPI at a recent roundtable interview with reporters in New York. "This is such a familiar, classic, period drama-land and we've seen so many period dramas over the years of Jane Austen and all that sort of style, but never told from this perspective before. And to have a woman at the center of it, and not just a woman, but a bi-racial woman and [a film] directed by a woman, written by a woman, it was really just refreshing to me to be able to explore this love story, as well as having it all grounded by this social-political context of the time, which, to me, really weighted it in a reality and made it feel very contemporary."
"It's saying something so interesting and unique through a medium and a way of storytelling that we’re very familiar with, so it's a much easier way for audiences to go in and kind of form their own opinions and learn something from quite a kind of formulaic way of storytelling, which is through the grand period drama, Downton Abbey-esque ..." added Reid, who was sitting beside her.
"And I think it's just quite arresting to see someone who looks like me at the center of it and for me even when I first saw the film for myself, we get introduced into this, as I say, such a familiar world ..." Mbatha-Raw explained.
"This image is so unique. To see a bi-racial woman in a corset ..." Reid noted.
"And not a slave, not in a subservient, brutalized role," Mbatha-Raw continued. "Given a ladylike education and all of that and articulate. I think that that was something that Amma was keen to see represented and a voice, as I say, of a strong and educated and articulate woman of color on the screen."
Co-starring Tom Wilkinson, Sarah Gadon, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Matthew Goode and Penelope Wilton, Belle is in theaters now.