Women's Lives on Screen

Giving Voice to a Portrait: The Intersection of Gender, Race, and Law in Belle


  • Kate Sutherland Osgoode Hall Law School




law, film, race, gender


The 2013 feature film Belle presents an account of the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804). Belle was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer, and Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman, and she was raised in the home of her great uncle Lord Mansfield during his tenure as Chief Justice of England. The record of Belle’s life is thin, and her story might have been altogether forgotten had it not been for a 1779 portrait of her in which she was painted alongside her white cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. The film was inspired by the portrait. The paucity of available facts left the filmmakers much latitude for fictionalizing, but even so the film makes significant departures from the historical record, for example, in its representations of Belle’s eventual husband, and in its insertion of Belle into the unfolding of the Zong case, a case involving slavery that was decided by Lord Mansfield in 1783. In this paper, I consider the effectiveness and the ethical implications of the filmmakers’ use of law to give voice to this historical figure.

Author Biography

Kate Sutherland, Osgoode Hall Law School

Kate Sutherland is an Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University in Toronto, Canada. She teaches and conducts research in the areas of tort law, law and literature, and feminist legal theory. In addition to her academic work, she is the author of four books of fiction and poetry. Her most recent book, a collection of poems titled The Bones Are There, was published by Book*hug Press in 2020.





Women's Lives on Screen