Director Amma Asante: An irrepressible romantic with depth
Since 2009 director Amma Asante has been trying to make Belle, a film based on Misan Sagay’s script about Dido Belle, a woman of mixed race who grew up in England during a time when slavery was still legal. Raised by her father’s uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) finds herself in the midst of controversy. Much to her uncle’s chagrin, she falls for abolitionist John Davinier (Sam Reid). Their romance is set against the turbulence of the times. Asante recently spoke to a roundtable of reporters about the film.
Talk about the script and how it became a film.
[Sagay and I] have never met. When I came onto the project in 2009, she was not working on it at that point. For me, there was a process of going back to the painting [that inspired the screenplay] and doing some research and deciding what kind of movie I wanted to make. It was about me doing what I do as a filmmaker. I looked at the history and how I could hang my hook on the story. John is the younger Lord Mansfield. He’s the Lord Mansfield before the establishment gets to him. He’s the loose cannon and passionate guy who has to learn you have to know the game to play the game and sometimes you to be in the game to change the game. John brings to Lord Mansfield the reminder of morality. Lord Mansfield brings the idea that the world will devastate you if you think passion is all. You need both. That’s why we had the Arab Spring. You need that passion and rebellion but you also need those establishment guys who are willing to change the game.
What about the other themes?
I had to bring gender and class and race and those parallels into the film. At what point do you get that political awakening? Is it political with a small “p” or Political with a large “P?” And how could I show Dido in a way that wouldn’t make you irritated with her? She wasn’t just privileged as far as people of color are concerned. She was privileged as far as most people are concerned. How could I make it so she wasn’t asking for more, but she was asking for equality and for a right that would resonate with all of us? I dug deep into those themes. I’m a thematic storytelling and a thematic filmmaker. For me, that was the process of research and bringing it to screen.
What about your personal struggles? How do they figure into the film?
My dad died during the making of the film. He was very strict. He was very steeped in rules. He had fear of chaos and change. Like society at the time, he had one foot firmly entrenched in that area but he could not help being progressive. My dad who was an accountant who came home and said he would send me to theater school when I was 10. It was completely his idea. He was a West African man. That’s not what West African fathers were doing at the time. But the film is about conditioning versus instinct for all the characters. How do you make the decision between how you’ve been conditioned and what you’re instinct is telling you? When her blood father tells Dido to remember she was loved, I can recall my father doing that. We lived in a world where we were one of two black families on our street in London. The equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan would have their meetings at the end of our street at their headquarters; they were called the National Front. You could get bottles thrown at you when you were walking home. We were little girls walking home from school and we would be surrounded by “big boys,” as I liked to call them, who would use very racist language. That was just life and my dad wanted to instill something in me that would allow to me to cope outside the front door. That’s what Dido needs to carry her through the film. She has that moment of self-harming. I had that moment when I was 14. I wanted to be invisible because of all the tension. I want everyone to see Dido come through the journey to a healing place where she realizes she’s okay being a woman of color who lives in an aristocratic society.
It’s also a love story.
I’m an irrepressible romantic. I was told after my first film when I won a British Academy Award to go away and tell a love story. I learned that Dido and her husband married in a church in Hanover Square. They christened each of their children in this church. That was so romantic to me. It was a time when my husband, who was Danish, and I had been trying hard to have a child. It was a big romantic thing for me. I felt like I had permission to hang my hook on a big romantic love story. It balances the tough language in the movie. I had been married previously and when my husband’s mother, who was white, met me, she was like the character that Miranda Richardson plays in the film. She said, “She’s quite pretty but very black.” I was in hearing distance. The first time I heard it, I was 22 years old. I was a young 22. It was painful that she was using the term in a negative way, unlike my mother-in-law now who accepts me for all that I am and for everything I am. She lives in the Danish countryside and I don’t think had ever spoken to a black person. For the film’s love story, I wanted to pay homage to the love of my life in the same way that I wanted to pay homage to the paternal love story with my father. I wanted for audiences to see that he falls in love with her internal before the external.
Is that based on the true story?
What we know about Dido is that she was very intelligent and that Lord Mansfield worked with her in his study. She would take his dictation down. Education at the time was sewing and painting but not intellectual work. There are two love stories and I wanted both to be in there and pack a punch. You’re a lucky girl if you have a great relationship with your father and I had never seen a young girl of color being loved on the screen in that period and in that way. When I’m making a film, I write down a couple of themes on a piece of paper and then I fold them up and put them in a drawer and forget them. The themes I put down were love and courage and conditioning and instinct. I put them away and then tried to put them in the story that’s told. A lot of people have to be courageous in this movie. Lord Mansfield didn’t have to commission that painting. He was going against his peers and upbringing and conditioning so that we could talk about her today. We have to be proud of them both in so many ways.
How did you know Gugu was your Dido?
She has an innate sense of grace and elegance that is so right for the period and the Austen-esque genre that I wanted to pay homage to. What I knew I needed was someone who would be both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. She both fits into the world and doesn’t fit. We were casting for two years. I saw every biracial actress in the UK and some in America. Gugu came in a couple of times to read. I had met her in another film that had collapsed. She had read for that. I was blown away by her presence. She was going to have to carry the movie even though I would surround with thespian heavyweights. She had to be someone you would like and connect with on screen. I felt that way with Gugu. Casting is like trying to find the love of your life. You don’t know who it is but when you find them, there’s a feeling that’s there. That’s how I felt with all of the cast that read. The Tom Wilkinson and Miranda Richardson were my muses. They were my first choices.
Does this make for a black film?
I’ll be very honest. I don’t know. I made a movie with a black lead. I feel like I made a movie. I l feel like movies with all black casts are movies first. We’re trying to tell universal stories and the characters should be able to resonate beyond race. I wanted to put the extra layers in there that women might identify with and the extra layer for women of color. We all know about the hair issue. The Mabel character who comes in is part of helping to bring her to that moment of reflection. You don’t have to be black to get it, but I’ve experienced black women coming to me and saying thank you for that scene.
Do have a particular film that affected you?
All of the race and gender stuff comes from Jane Austen, whom I studied. I did those exams you do as a teenager at 27 because I was a child actress. In terms of film inspiration, I carry Dangerous Liaisons on my iPad. Stephen Frears is an inspiration. The race issues came from inside. I haven’t seen it, though I’m sure there’s a movie out there that I can draw on. But I haven’t seen one that I could draw on in that way. It was coming from gut.
What about the influence of Eartha Kitt and other actresses?
I got to interview her at the Apollo in Harlem when I was 22. She was amazing. I grew up with a glamorous mother and a father who liked to be sharply dressed. My parents would buy Shirley Bassey tickets and get dressed up and sit in the front row. When I met Phylicia Rashad I grew up with her. She was like my mother.