Amma Asante: “I’m an Austenite to the core”

Amma Asante is a rising star. She made her first feature in 2004, and was behind last year’s critically acclaimed period drama Belle. Asante took the time to talk to us about Belle‘s success, and we began by discussing how audiences have received the film.

“We’ve just been getting really great responses,” she says. “Quite emotional responses, I have to say. It’s a movie that’s definitely crossed over into a lot of different demographics, in a way that lots of costume dramas sometimes aren’t expected to.”

The film is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed-race woman raised by the Murray family in the late eighteenth century as a free gentlewoman, and the film’s central image is that of the famous painting of Belle with her cousin Elizabeth. What attracted Asante to this story?

“I’m somebody who’s greatly inspired by all forms of art, and what I found really interesting about this painting was that it inspired me to want to know more. It was an unusual painting, of a woman of colour standing next to her white counterpart, where she is painted as an equal. It was very unusual for its time. There’s a lot of mystery to her; you wonder who she is, why she’s dressed the way she is. But really most importantly it inspired the question of who commissioned the painting? Somebody would have asked for it. I wanted to know who that person was, and of course now we know it was Lord Mansfield, and that person interested me a great deal, or at least as much as Dido, because I wanted to know why he would do something so unusual for that period. I saw that mixture of art and politics and history all rolled into this one painting, and thought ‘Wow, that could be fascinating [as a film]’.”

The film also plays with the genre conventions of the Austen-style romance. “I’m a costume drama fiend, I have to say. I’m an Austenite to the very core. And though I love the genre, one of the things I was always interested in, and possibly a little bit frustrated about, was the idea that while there was this wonderful genteel world going on within Austen, we never had the opportunity to see the other world that was informing this society, the platform this world was laid on: the world of slavery. I thought, ‘How can I do a costume drama without ever showing that?’ And this painting did, of course. It allowed me to bring these two things together, and tell my story according to my own principles. I wanted all of the traditional cultural elements that you would normally have, but I also wanted to add that extra edge. Hopefully you actually feel the impact of the slave trade in the film.”

Asante has extensive experience in the film industry, which is of course still dominated by white men, exemplified by the most recent Oscar nominations. “The awards reflect the industry they’re rewarding- you’re always talking about a very small elite of any demographic within the industry as a whole. I think the industry’s got a long way to go, in terms of all kinds of diversity. Audiences have got a part to play in that as well, I don’t just think it’s Hollywood’s problem. It’s a holistic problem; we tend to support movies, as an audience, that tell stories about [white] men.

We need more diversity in the types of stories we tell, and in the end, studios want to make the stories that audiences are going to allow to make money. Ultimately, the people who will benefit from that [increased diversity] are the audiences. At some point you’re going to want diversity to bring new blood into the cinema, and I think that ups everybody’s game.”

Speaking of the industry’s future, the conversation turns to Asante’s next project, Unforgettable. “It’s a double female lead, and on the surface, it’s kind of similar [to her previous films] in its exploration of identity, particularly female identity. It examines a first wife coming to terms with her ex-husband marrying his second wife, and the idea of what happens when you’re no longer a Mrs any more, but you’ve put your whole identity into the concept of marriage. What happens when you feel like you’re walking in the shadow of somebody else? And it also looks at the second wife. How do you explore your own identity within that context? But it’s an entertaining, rip-roaring thriller.”

Belle was an incredible film, marking the arrival of a major new talent in global cinema. If Unforgettable turns out half as good, we’re in for a treat, as well as the continued flourishing of one of the most engaging film-makers working today.


PHOTO/ Roger Askew