The “Belle” Interview
with Kam Williams
Amma’s Good Karma
Writer/director Amma Asante made an unusual entry into filmmaking. As a child, she attended the Barbara Speake stage school in London, where she trained as a student in dance and drama.
She began a television career as a child actress, appearing as a regular in the popular British school drama “Grange Hill.” She fronted the ‘Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s and was one of nine “Grange Hill” children to take it to the Reagan White House. Amma went on to gain credits in other British television series including “Desmond’s” and “Birds of a Feather,” and was a Children’s Channel presenter for a year.
In her late teens, Amma left the world of acting and made the move to screenwriting with a development deal from Chrysalis. Two series of the urban drama “Brothers and Sisters” followed which she wrote and produced for the BBC.
Amma’s made her feature film directorial debut in 2004 with A Way of Life which won her 17 international awards including The BFI London Film Festival’s inaugural Alfred Dunhill UK Film Talent Award, created to recognize the achievements of a new or emerging British writer/director who has shown great skill and imagination in bringing originality and verve to filmmaking. Additionally Asante collected The Times ‘Breakthrough Artist of the Year’ at the prestigious South Bank Show Awards for writing and directing the film.
At the BAFTA Film Awards in February 2005, Asante received the BAFTA Carl Foreman Award for Special Achievement by a Writer/Director in a Debut Film. On the same night, she scored a double triumph at the 2005 Miami International Film Festival, winning the award for ‘Best Dramatic Feature in World Cinema’ and the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) prize for ‘Best Feature Film.’
Amma was born in London in 1969 and is married to Soren Kragh Pedersen, the Europol Chief of Media and Public Relations. Here, she talks about her new film, Belle, a fact-based, historical drama starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw about the daughter of an African slave and a British ship captain who was raised in England as an aristocrat.
Kam Williams: Hi Amma. I’m honored to have this opportunity.
Amma Asante: Thank you very much, Kam. It’s my pleasure.
KW: I told my readers I’d be speaking with you, so I’ll be mixing in their questions with some of my own.
AA: Okay, cool.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: Where did you find this story and what motivated you to turn it into a movie?
AA: Well, the story comes from the painting that emerges at the end of the film.
[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dido_Elizabeth_Belle.jpg ] My producer [Damian Jones] sent me a postcard of the picture. I knew immediately that this was an unusual painting and that there was something very special about it, because I had recently been to an art exhibition in Amsterdam that was looking at the history of people of color in art from the 14th Century. What I learned from the show, without knowing that this postcard was ever going to fall into my lap, was that people of color were generally used as accessories in paintings. We were there to express the status of the main subject of the canvas. We’d always be positioned lower than and looking up in awe at the protagonist and never looking out at the painter. But in this postcard, everything was the opposite. There was Dido Belle staring out at the painter, positioned slightly higher than Elizabeth [her white cousin] whose arm was reaching out to Dido, and thereby drawing your eyes towards Dido. So, I saw an opportunity to create a story that would be a combination of race, politics, art and history. And it went from there, with lots and lots of research.
KW: I don’t agree with the assumption of Irene’s next question. Why did you focus on the love story instead of the historical significance?
AA: I disagree with her as well. I think the historical significance was to bring the two people in the love story together. What I tried to do was to use the legal case of the Zong Massacre and the painting itself as tools to explore Dido Elizabeth Belle’s journey. They feed into her being able to find her voice and into her coming to a place where she experiences self-love. So, I would say that that’s at the center of the film, the love story between Dido and herself. Everything else kind of sits around that idea of a young woman coming into her own.
KW: Irene was also wondering whether there might be a sequel in the works.
AA: [Chuckles] No, there isn’t. I feel like this painting fell into my lap because this story needed to be told by me. I believe I was blessed to have the opportunity to be able put this story together and bring it to the screen. But I feel that my role is completed now, and I’d have to leave a sequel to someone else.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: I was very impressed that this elaborate costume drama/historical biopic was just your second feature film.
AA: Thank you, Patricia. I knew that I wanted my second film to be big and lush and important, and that I wanted it to make a statement. That’s why it took those eight years to get from my first to my second feature. I always knew I had it in me. I just had to persuade the financiers as well. I think feature films are about the confidence you have in bringing your vision to fruition.
KW: When I interviewed Gugu, she gave me the idea that you definitely had a vision of what you were trying to achieve, and also that she felt very comfortable in your hands.
AA: Oh, that’s nice of her to say. It was important to me for the cast to feel safe in my hands. I was very open to collaborating with them, but they also knew that I had a very, very strong vision for this story that I wanted to tell.
KW: She goes on to say: Given that I speak French, I am curious to know where the French last name of Dido Elizabeth Belle comes from?
AA: Dido was born to a West African woman who was sold into slavery. I named the film Belle to honor both Dido and her mother, Maria. But we don’t know how she came to have the surname Belle.
KW: Patricia says: I saw the movie in Quebec in English but I hope the movie will be translated soon into French and other languages to allow the Francophony and other cultures to discover it.
AA: Absolutely! The film has been translated ad is being released in France in a few months’ time.
KW: Patricia also asks: Why do you think that the story of Belle remained unknown, despite the painting of her?
AA: That’s a very interesting question. I’m 44 years-old now, and I grew up not knowing anything about it. But young girls and boys in England today are being taught about Dido Belle. You can read about elements of her life in various books that have been published. What there wasn’t until our film was the quintessential story that pieced together Dido’s life. Since the film does contain some elements of fiction, Damian and I decided to commission Paula Byrne to write an absolutely historically-accurate version of Dido’s life in book form, also called “Belle.” http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0062310771/ref=nosim/thslfofire-20
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: How do you feel about the compliment that “The movie Belle has a woman’s touch and is a woman’s movie.”
AA: I like that compliment! And I thank whoever gave it. What I wanted to do was put a woman of color, front and center, in this movie combining a lot of themes that were relevant to both men and women. I actively wanted her to carry the weight of this movie because I’m a woman. And I actively wanted to explore many of the issues that affected her as a woman of color. That was very important to me. And although these issues affect some women of color, I don’t think they’re only of interest to women of color. They’re of universal interest. In addition, I’m a girl, and I celebrate being a girl, and it was really important to me to celebrate the beauty that I could create in a movie like this, aesthetically, in terms of the costumes and the production design. I wanted something big and lush and beautiful and unashamedly feminine. So, I take that as a big compliment, Harriet.
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
AA: Oh my God! You’d be forcing me to really nail my flag to the mast. But I have a few. Chanel! I love and adore Chanel. I’m a huge Christian Dior fan. And I’m also a huge Yves St. Laurent fan.
KW: Three classics!
AA: I’m just a classic gal!
KW: Editor Lisa Loving asks: What is your take on the blossoming genre of films about the African Diaspora during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade? Do you expect to see more films about this aspect of history made?
AA: I think we will because, every so many years, a filmmaker returns to the subject. Interestingly, I also sense that a wider feed is coming through in these stories. I cried watching The Butler, because I understood that with all these wonderful films like Mandela, 12 Years a Slave and Half of a Yellow Sun that a beautiful tapestry of our history was in the process of being woven all over the world. I found that very inspiring and started to weep because I realized that Belle would be a part of that tapestry. What I hope is that this wider pattern that’s emerging isn’t just a fad but evidence that we’ve turned a corner as filmmakers of color and that we’re moving forward in our confidence and in the film industry not being afraid of our telling these stories and in giving us the opportunity to bring our vision to the screen.
KW: Lisa also asks: Did you find Tarantino’s Django Unchained gratuitously violent?
AA: I don’t think it’s for me to comment on how other directors choose to bring their visions to fruition. You can watch Belle to see what I think my film needed to communicate its message about slavery. For me, I found it unnecessary to show any great violence. However, Quentin Tarantino did find it necessary for his film, and I have to respect his decision as one filmmaker respecting another. I’ll leave it at that.
KW: The Harriet Pakula-Teweles question: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to direct?
AA: Well, there is. And I just bought the rights to the project two days ago. It’s a remake of a fabulous French film. I can’t give it away, but stay tuned.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
AA: My earliest childhood memory I actually injected into Belle. It’s of me sitting on my dad’s lap. I remember him saying to me, “You don’t understand what I’m saying to you right now, but know that you are loved.” That’s where that line comes from in the movie where Dido’s biological father leans down to say the same thing to her. Belle is also dedicated to my father who died unexpectedly during the making of the film. It’s a movie that means a lot to me because I made it not only for little girls around the world who grew up to see themselves reflected in a film like this, but also for my father because it was the kind of picture he would love, even if his daughter had nothing to do with it. So, my earliest memory of him is in the movie.
KW: My condolences, Amma. Is it true that your father was an accountant, your mother was a housekeeper, and that they also opened a deli?
AA: Yes, that’s correct. After my parents arrived in England, it took them a decade to get a foothold. It meant that they had to work non-stop. My mother would do two cleaning jobs in the morning before opening her deli, and then do two more cleaning jobs in the evening. Her whole day, from 4:30 AM until 9 PM was spent working, as was my father’s, between the office and the shop.
KW: You became a TV star as a teenager. How did you avoid the problems that destroy the lives of so many child actors?
AA: Again, I would honestly have to credit my parents, Kwame and Comfort, who ensured that my feet as well as my siblings stayed firmly on the ground. So, I was very well-rooted. I also learned the value of money from a very young age. I thank God for that.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
AA: Jollof rice, a very popular Ghanain dish I learned from my mother. It’s a mixture of rice and vegetables that you can make with either chicken or beef. It’s great because it was designed to give a child or an adult all the nutrients they need in one dish. And it is my absolute favorite!
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
AA: I see the woman I knew I wanted to be as a child. When I was a young girl, I had a vision of the woman I wanted to be. And I often reached out to women of color in America for inspiration. My mother would regularly buy Essence and Ebony. I would look at those magazines filled with images of professional, intelligent women of color who knew who they were, who enjoyed who they were, and who were surrounded by other people who enjoyed who they were. When I look in the mirror, I’m really glad that that’s what I see today, but it took awhile to get here.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
AA: I would have to say “No.” But before Belle, I would have answered “Yes.” The great thing about this movie is that I’ve put so much of myself on the table, and put so much of my guts into the movie that I’ve really worn my heart on my sleeve, and everybody has really gotten access to my heart and my head. Many of the questions from your readers have been great. But I would like to turn the question around and ask you: Is there any question you have for me that you might be too shy to ask?
KW: Funny you should ask. I do have a few I’d decided against. Here’s one: Would you mind saying something controversial that would get this interview tweeted?
AA: [LOL] Yes, I would mind.
KW: Another one I was planning to pass on was the Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
AA: I really can answer that one. Sitting in the back row of a full audience watching one of my movies, and hearing them cry and hearing them laugh in the right moments, particularly when they laugh at a line I’ve stolen from one of my family members and put in the film. That excites me a great deal. And that’s an honest answer.
KW: I also hesitated to ask you the Melissa Harris-Perry question: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
AA: My first big heartbreak has made me an irrepressible romantic. I was lucky enough to date my first love for five years. We had a very romantic, very dramatic teenage love affair. And it has impacted me because I have married a man who is simply the grownup version of my first love. So, I believe my first love was just preparing me for the man I’m married to today. And it has also impacted the way I write, because there will always be a love story in every movie I write. Always! I think having a positive first love experience before the heartbreak made me a more confident in who I am, a more confident female today. That might be controversial.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
AA: A child. I’ve been trying for a child with my husband for a long time, for over eight years. And if I could have one wish instantly granted, it would be to be pregnant with a healthy baby.
KW: I know his name is Soren. What type of name is that? Swedish?
AA: Close. He’s Danish.
KW: The Kerry Washington question: If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
AA: A panther! Dangerous and beautiful.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
AA: The ability to inspire, to transfer our passion to other people and to bring them along with us in pursuit of our vision. I have to be able to inspire investors, actors and crews on a daily basis. What I recognize in other successful people is a similar ability to make their passion infectious.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Amma, and best of luck with Belle.
AA: Thank you, Kam. It’s been great to talk to you.