'Belle' director on women film-makers and how the zeitgeist rules cinema

Director Amma Asante's acclaimed new film is inspired by the true story of a mixed-heritage daughter of a British Royal Navy admiral

Fri, Jun 13, 2014, 11:02

Even if she wasn’t statuesque, fiercely articulate and drop-dead gorgeous, Amma Asante would likely stand out from any crowd. A Bafta-winning, British born director with Ghanaian parents, she has an enviable record in a profession that is seldom noted as being colour- or gender-blind.

An early student of the Barbara Speake Stage School in Acton – where her classmates included Michelle Gayle and Naomi Campbell – Asante first came to prominence as a regular on BBC’s Grange Hill. Her spin-off work with the UK’s Just Say No campaign brought her to Ronald Reagan’s White House. She transitioned to the other side of the camera in the late nineties as the writer and producer of the BBC2 drama series, Brothers and Sisters.

Her 2004 debut feature, A Way of Life, examined racism in Wales under the sign of Ken Loach. The low-budget indie film went on to win a hatful of awards including The South Bank Show’s Breakthrough Artist of the Year.

Amma Asante is one lionised lady.

“I feel as a woman in the industry who has won a Bafta, who has written and produced TV, I can walk through a financiers’ door and ask for money,” says the director. “And I feel privileged doing that. I feel unusual. But that privilege doesn’t negate my gender and colour. It’s really easy to get excited when one woman of colour breaks through. All the questions are phrased positively. Is this a different time? Have we turned a corner?”

Not necessarily. Despite her best efforts, 10 years have elapsed between Asante’s first and second films. The intervening period was not, she notes, without its frustrations.

“I feel lucky. And I don’t want it to sound like I’m having a moan. But I felt I was trying very hard. And I felt rejected. The challenges aren’t necessarily obvious. It’s more that you’re just not considered. You don’t come into the thought processes at all. But with every film, I’m proving that a woman of colour can bring in audiences.”

She’s right about that. Across the Atlantic the most talked about movie of early summer has not been a tent-pole release, but Asante’s new sumptuous British drama, Belle, a movie so lush and retro-opulent, it makes Downton Abbey seem like a smelly outhouse. Oprah is a fan. And the film hit the headlines in early May when outpaced its blockbuster rivals on screen averages, earning $26,645 from each location to Spider-Man 2’s $21,186.

“We’ve had a really lovely release in America,” says the film-maker. “But I’m still a bit nervous about the film coming out in England and Ireland. America is great. But you want to impress the people closer to home, don’t you?”

A woman’s picture in every sense, it’s hard not to fall for Belle’s feminine charms. Maybe we’re projecting, but Belle’s golden hues, pink flashes and sensual use of close-up do point toward a film-maker that is either a woman or a reincarnated Douglas Sirk.

“I think so,” says Asante. “In every way that you can, I love being a woman. And I do think we bring something different to the lens. I hope you can see that in this film. Because I want to celebrate being a woman.”

Belle is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761 – 1805), the illegitimate mixed-heritage daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral. Raised in Britain by her great-uncle Lord Mansfield, the then Lord Chief Justice, Belle’s complicated standing in society was negotiated at a time when her protector was called to rule on the legitimacy of the slave trade.

Belle takes a landmark 1781 ruling by the Lord Chief Justice (essayed in the film by Tom Wilkinson) as its historical framework. The brutal case concerned the Zong, a crowded slave ship which threw 142 men overboard en route to Jamaica, so that the captain might claim insurance.

“One of the wonderful things about this story is that I didn’t have to think about weighty themes,” says Asante. They are already there. The circumstances are extraordinary. They are a gift for any film-maker.”

The director subtly compares and contrasts the slavitude faced by 18th-century women and the slavitude faced by kidnapped Africans. Belle’s situation is tricky: she is a lady of society but she is equally kept away from that society.

“She lives a life of extraordinary privilege. But I didn’t want her to look spoiled when she asks for more. She is just asking for very basic human rights. She’s in an impossible position. She doesn’t look anything like her relatives. And she’s trying to find her voice at a time when women weren’t supposed to speak.”

It’s impossible not to wonder about the timing. Since 2012 we’ve seen three major and radically different ‘slave movies’: Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and now, Amma Asante’s Belle.

“Partly it’s a zeitgeist thing. Zeitgeist rules film. Ten years ago every other movie seemed to come from Africa: Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, The Constant Gardener. Because that was a trend. But it is interesting that we were all working on these movies at the same time without knowing anything about the other projects. I can’t speak for Django. But I think Belle and 12 Years a Slave reflect that film-makers of colour want to put people of colour at the heart of their movie. We want to dramatise things that are relevant to our history, the subjects that are close to us. These are untold histories. Nobody else has chosen to make a movie from Solomon’s story or from Dido’s story before. Finally we can.”

For Asante, the film began with a postcard of a 1779 painting depicting Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825). It’s an extraordinary image, one that rips up the contemporary rulebook on representation.

“It’s so obviously different from other 18th- century portraits,” says Amma. “A person of colour was usually used as a status symbol in paintings, an expression of the wealth of their Caucasian master. Here the person a colour is the one looking out from the painting. Everything draws your eye to her. It’s Elizabeth reaching out to Dido.”

The evolution of the movie has been complicated. Belle’s screenplay is, following legal wrangling, is credited to Misan Sagay, an Anglo-Nigerian writer who developed the project for HBO but had to abandon it due to ill health. Asante spent four years on the screenplay, working from the postcard that belle’s producer Damian Lewis sent her.

“I wanted to reflect a world that we were familiar with, the same world we know well through Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility. But this world is also unfamiliar because it immediately has this character we weren’t expecting it find in a very strong position. I took everything from the painting. Because once I got over the shock of seeing a person of colour in expensive jewels and beautiful silks. And wearing a dress that is a little bit more fashionable her cousin’s dress. I had so many questions. Who commissioned this painting? Was there a mother in this house? Because these children are loved. This mother has stood up to convention.”

The finished film, not unlike an Austen novel, buries larger issues of race and gender in handsome period details and a love story between Belle’s eponymous heroine (as played by the remarkable Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and a dashing anti-slavery lawyer (Sam Reid). A remarkable roll-call of top British thesps – Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, Tom Felton – round off a quality cast.

“I can’t tell you how excited I was when we finalised the cast list,” laughs Asante. “It has been an amazing journey. But that was a special moment.”

Expect many more to follow. Are the bookies taking Oscar bets, yet?

 Read Tara Brady's review of Belle here