The Bell Affair

Daniel and Mary Bell sued for their freedom from slavery and won. After slaveholders threatened to re-enslave them and their children, the Bells led one of the largest escape attempts in American history. Their inspiring story is brought to cinema for the first time. Filmed and directed remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, the cast was never in the same room with each other or with the director at the same time.

In the summer of 1835, a strike at the Washington Navy Yard fueled a citywide race riot. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Francis Scott Key, set out to prosecute abolitionist Reuben Crandall for libelous sedition and the intent to incite a slave revolt. Freedom hung in the balance.

In the midst of this political turmoil, Daniel Bell convinced Mary's dying slaveholder, Robert Armstead, to emancipate Mary and the children. Two days later, Armstead died, and his widow Susan Armstead refused to honor the Bells' freedom.

She arranged to have Daniel secretly sold. Slave traders infiltrated the Navy Yard, captured an unsuspecting Bell on the shop floor, and dragged him in chains to the slave pen at the infamous Yellow House.

Daniel fought a desperate and expensive battle in court to win his own freedom and protect his family from Susan Armstead. When Mary and the children's freedom suits failed in the courts, the Bells attempted to escape enslavement, setting off for freedom on a schooner called The Pearl.