Inspired by the true story of a mixed-heritage daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, Belle takes on gender and race with a candour that would make Jane Austen blush. Director Amma Asante explains her feminine approach to
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