Tara Brady

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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

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

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