*In the 1980’s and 90s, Amma Asante was a teen star, appearing as a series regular on high-profile British TV shows like “Grange Hill,” “Desmond” and “Birds of a Feather.”
However, after experiencing challenges transitioning into adult roles, she made the wise detour into directing where her talents have continued to shine with great aplomb.
Making her debut with the British race drama, “A Way of Life, which earned her rave reviews from The Times of London, plus awards from the London Film Festival, the British Film Critics Association, among others.
The high kudos continues with her latest film, “Belle,” an elaborately filmed period drama about the life of the Black British aristocrat Dido Elizabeth Belle. Shot on location in the Isle of Man, London and Oxford, the film has earned praised from historians and film critics alike for revealing portrait of a largely unknown piece of British history.
The Robertson Treatment recently spoke to the vivacious and wonderfully articulate filmmaker to talk about her career and what it’s like to be one of the only female black directors in the world.
Robertson Treatment: So tell what lead you to your current career as a director?
Amma Asante: Well I began my career as a child actress on one of the most popular shows in Great Britain at the time called “Grange Hill”. I was about 14 at the time and remained on the show until was 17. After that I did guest spots on sitcoms until as the work dried up, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t a very good actress. Over the years I had worked with some fabulously talented people and I already knew that I was never really comfortable being in front of the camera. I started writing scripts during my spare time and one of my stories got commissioned. I was also able to secure a TV, which made me turn my attentions towards producing.
RT: What about directing?
AS: Well I had no concept of myself as a director and nearly all of the directors that I had known were both white and male. I didn’t even know that it was something possible for to do. But as I became to prep for my first film project, I was encouraged to try my hand at it by the people who were financing the film. It turned out to be a tremendous gift, because from the moment that I got behind the camera, I knew that directing was something that I was meant to do.
RT: What kind of challenges have you had to overcome as a black female director?
AS: Well in Great Britain, I’m in a class of one (laughs). When I was very young my father told me to always know that I was loved, so despite whatever challenges I may encounter , I walk in confidence because I know that. My first film won the British Academy Award, so I’m growing comfortable that I’m headed on the right path. I see myself as the quintessential black female British filmmaker.
RT: What was your motivation for taking on the story of Belle?
AS: The project came to me in the form of a picture post card of the famous painting from the Mansfield estate of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth. I had studied the history of black people in European art and was struck by how different the two subjects were presented. Unlike most depiction from this period where blacks were always shown very subservient to the white subjects, this portrait has both black and white subjects positioned as equals. She [the black subject] is not in the background and she’s not an accessory, but is positioned very central to the image. I was immediately captivated and began to do research to find out more about her.
RT: What was your greatest moment making this film?
AS: I’m a thematic filmmaker, so making Belle gave me an opportunity to create a story about the power of art, politics and race. I grew up being one of the only blacks in my neighborhood, so I know how hard it is live under those circumstances. The scene where she looks in the mirror for the first time and notices her own beauty was special to me because it was in that moment that she acknowledges a self-awareness of who she is and understands her value to the events that are taking place.
RT: What made you select Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the film’s lead?
AS: It took a year for us to find her. We saw every biracial actress in the UK and beyond, so we had a lot to choose from. .The thing about Gugu is that she straddles both areas – the familiar and unfamiliar. I need someone who could fit into the world being presented but yet still be alien to it. It was much like finding the love of your life. When I found her, I just knew.
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Gil Robertson is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author and president of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA).
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