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The Portrait Behind Amma Asante’s ‘Belle’

March 4, 2015

By Nathaniel Simons (@NathanielSimons), The Africa Channel


For the average person a picture is worth a thousand words, but for writer/director Amma Asante, it yielded even more — the script for her recent feature Belle.

The inspiration for Asante’s second film, Belle, came to her by way of a postcard image of an 18th century painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, seen pictured below with her cousin. In the four years it took to get the film made, Asante recalls not being able to let go of the portrait and the story behind it; it fueled her to get the project completed. And her work has paid off, with the movie opening around the world to good reviews and talk of Oscar.

Zoffanys Painting_Cropped

Belle is based on the true story of Dido, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Dido was an illegitimate mixed-race girl born to a white Royal Navy Admiral and an enslaved African. She was raised in British high society by an aristocratic uncle, Lord Mansfield, played by Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson. At the core, this is a story of a young woman searching for her place in society and being captured by love in the process.

Asante was born in Britain in 1969 to Ghanaian parents, and grew up as a child actress. She later transitioned to directing, winning a BAFTA award for her first film, A Way of Life, released in 2004.

Despite her busy schedule and press tour for Belle, Asante was kind enough to join me for a conversation to talk about the film, what it’s like being “bicultural,” and what’s next for her.

NATHANIEL: How would you describe your approach to storytelling? 

AMMA: I feel like history will dictate, really, what kind of filmmaker I am.  I’m working towards putting a body of work out there.  I feel as though I have a very strong voice and a very strong vision. But I feel like my body of work will speak for itself in the end.

N: When you first saw that postcard image, did you think you could develop a movie from a picture? 

A: I did in the sense that I saw the possibility to create a story that would involve politics, art and race. The question was, would anybody finance it? There was no point in doing it from this painting unless I could put Dido front and center of Belle.

N: How did you piece this story together?

A: There is this myth out there that there isn’t that much information out there on Dido. What there isn’t is a quintessential book on her life. There isn’t a set of diaries that she had written herself.  But what there is, is a lot of information in different places that just takes a lot of patience and a lot of passion to tie together, to piece together her story.

N: This story deals with race, politics, love and feminism.  How did you find fictional elements that could support the film?

A: For me, it was about finding fictional elements that would support the history and not make a mockery of it or underline it.  And what I mean is you find out everything you possibly can and then you work with what you need.  I wanted to understand in my own head what kind of white men, in the 18th century, would genuinely love a woman of color, Dido; one as her father, one as her husband. I wanted them to have things in common, so what I decided to do was make John [her husband] a kind of mirror image of Lord Mansfield, before Lord Mansfield became part of the establishment.

N: What do you think the film says about the rules we construct to govern society? 

A: The movie is very much about conditioning versus instinct, how we’re raised versus what we feel, what our psyche tells us versus what our conditioning tells us.  At the time, from this point onward, slavery was going through the very slow process of moving towards abolition.  The biggest argument – the biggest argument – towards keeping slavery was this idea that we’ve done it through 200 years, we’ve done it for all this time, these are the rules, this is what black people are, and this is what white people are.

N: Being born in Britain, but being of Ghanaian descent, do you ever feel “in-between” cultures? 

A: I’d go back to Ghana, and I definitely wasn’t Ghanaian; I was too English.  And back in England I definitely wasn’t English, because my parents were from Africa and I can speak Twi fluently and I like the food. It took me a long time to get to the point where I just accepted I’m just both. I’m a Brit of Ghanaian descent, and that makes me bicultural. And this is why I had to get to the point with Dido Belle where I could create her to feel okay with herself, because I too had to get to the point where I was okay with that combination of who I am and being not just accepting of who I am, but liking who I am and realizing that there is a value in who I am, and I have something to bring with who I am.

N: How we perceive beauty and the social construction of it seems central to the film. What are your thoughts?

A: As a black female, I believe that the misconception has not been that we have not been perceived as beautiful…  I think that we’ve always been perceived as beautiful, whatever shade of black we have been.  I think it’s a question of value, not beauty.  What we haven’t been is valued.

N: The movie takes place in a Jane Austen-like world that was supported by the inhumanity of slavery, yet the audience never sees enslaved Africans in the film.  Why is that?

A: If I was going to be revolutionary about this, what I was going to have to do was create a movie that was Austen-esque in almost every way and prove that a woman of color could be placed within the context of a quintessential British period drama and could carry that movie.  That audiences would go and see her and that her appeal would be universal.  Because that was the challenge.  However, I couldn’t make that drama without looking at the trade that was informing the economy that was holding up that genteel society.  I, as a woman of color, couldn’t make that movie unless I looked at the slave trade.  So what I challenged myself to do was absolutely stick to the sub-genre of the Austen-esque period drama and include slavery and make you feel the impact of slavery though emotional terms, psychological terms.

N:  What’s up next for you?

A: Next I’m doing a Warner Bros. movie, the working title is Unforgettable.  It’s a double female lead.  I’m fully working with the writers on this … whilst I concentrate on getting off the ground a movie that I will shoot in Berlin in 2015, another one, called Where Hands Touch.  And that’s looking at the journey of a young girl of color, a mixed-race girl in 1940s Berlin, against the backdrop of the Holocaust in the Second World War.

Follow Amma and her incredible journey on Twitter: @AmmaAsante.



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