This period drama really brought the people and the issues to life. Belle is a powerful story, the kind that leaves me in awe that a world so long gone can be recreated with authenticity and nuance. Stodgy history professors may quibble on the details and the artistic license, but audiences found the film captivating.
At the heart of the Belle story is the issue of individual rights, liberty. In a society that treats the poor and women with nearly the same disregard as slaves there is a point here about class-based discrimination.
What clicked in Belle was the parallel between a woman without status and a woman without money. Dido Belle was actually given an inheritance by her father, a goodly amount of income, while her cousin—a beautiful white lady, with an aristocratic family name—was left penniless. As the two mature we find that a woman without means is every bit a second-class citizen as is a black woman with money, albeit with different social stigmas. The British class system is the culprit, and the slaves at the bottom of the chain remind all that it dehumanizes everyone. The inflexible system that ranks people according to every conceivable measure, right down to the order of their birth, is fundamentally flawed. The logical conclusion is the Zong incident, where human life is argued to be worth less than its insurance value.
This politically charged atmosphere really resonates. The film version gave Belle a crucial role in fighting for abolition in the British justice system. As much as the real history and the fictional can reconcile these issues, I’d say the effort worked.