Find­ing her groove

With ‘A United King­dom,’ film­maker Amma Asante con­tin­ues the themes she ex­plored in ‘Belle’

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY MICHAEL O'SUL­LI­VAN michael.osul­li­van@wash­

Amma Asante is on a roll. Af­ter she won Bri­tain’s equiv­a­lent of the Os­car (for most promis­ing new­comer) for “A Way of Life,” her 2004 de­but fea­ture as a wri­ter­di­rec­tor, the of­fers poured in. But the Lon­don-born ac­tress-turned­film­maker wanted to tackle some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent from that gritty, con­tem­po­rary kitchensink drama, which is set in Wales. Fi­nally, in 2013, came “Belle,” a fact­based pe­riod ro­mance about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a mixed-race woman (played by Gugu MbathaRaw) and a white English­man (Sam Reid), set against the back­drop of the 18th-cen­tury slave trade.

Asante’s lat­est film, “A United King­dom,” plies a sim­i­lar theme. It’s the true story of Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo) — the first prime min­is­ter of Botswana and a man of royal birth — and his con­tro­ver­sial 1948 mar­riage to a white Eng­lish com­moner, Ruth Wil­liams (Rosamund Pike). Asante’s next project, due out in 2018, is “Where Hands Touch,” a World War II-era love story about a mixed-race Ger­man teenager (Amandla Sten­berg) and the boy she loves, a mem­ber of the Hitler Youth (Ge­orge McKay).

Un­til a few years ago, the 47year-old di­rec­tor lived in The Hague with her Dan­ish-born hus­band. But she has been so busy lately, jump­ing from lo­ca­tions in Lon­don to Botswana to Bel­gium, that she has, as she jok­ingly put it dur­ing a re­cent visit to Wash­ing­ton, “no fixed abode.” Asante sat down long enough to talk about her work’s cen­tral themes — iden­tity, love and glob­al­ism — and the legacy of her im­mi­grant par­ents.

Q: Given that you’ve now made two films on the theme of in­ter­ra­cial ro­mance, with a third on the way, is there a dan­ger of be­ing pi­geon­holed as a di­rec­tor?

A: You can be. If your in­dus­try per­ceives that you’ve done well with some­thing, they of­fer you more of the same. For me, each film ex­er­cises dif­fer­ent mus­cles.

Q: Mean­ing the ro­man­tic mus­cle and the po­lit­i­cal mus­cle?

A: That as well, but I also mean that each film is dif­fer­ent from the other. When I made “A Way of Life,” I re­mem­ber the in­dus­try, on both sides of the pond, say­ing: “It’s a great movie, but it’s so rough, so raw. I won­der if she can do any­thing pol­ished?” Then I did “Belle,” and they were like: “It’s so pol­ished. Can she do any­thing gritty?” I wanted “Belle” to be very dif­fer­ent from “A Way of Life.” And “A United King­dom — with its David Lean-es­que land­scapes and back­drop of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics — is hugely dif­fer­ent from “Belle,” which takes place in draw­ing rooms and the smaller streets of Lon­don. “Where Hands Touch” is very much a 1944 Berlin world.

Q: Is there some­thing in the zeit­geist that ex­plains why we’re see­ing more in­ter­ra­cial love sto­ries like “Lov­ing,” that set the per­sonal in the con­text of the po­lit­i­cal? A: The cli­mate is ripe. Way back when, there had been no “Belle,” no “[The] But­ler,” no “12 Years a Slave,” no “Selma,” none of these movies that proved there was an in­ter­est. I think we do look back when we come to times of strug­gle, to see how far we’ve come and how far we need to move for­ward. The same fi­nanciers that I had pre­sented “Where Hands Touch” to years be­fore sud­denly called me up and asked: “Have you still got that project from 10 years back? Be­cause we’re think­ing now might be a good time to put money into it.”

Q: Is “Hands” also based on a true story? A: No, the back­drop is his­tor­i­cal fact, but the story is com­pletely fic­tional. As a woman di­rec­tor, I’m al­ways go­ing to be in­ter­ested in how the po­lit­i­cal im­pacts the per­sonal. For me, ev­ery­thing is po­lit­i­cal. It just de­pends on whether it’s big-P or small-P po­lit­i­cal.

Q: Which of your films de­liv­ers your strong­est mes­sage? A: Movies are like chil­dren. It’s like ask­ing a par­ent, “Who’s your fa­vorite child?” What I can say about “Where Hands Touch” is that I’ve been des­per­ate to tell this story, for many rea­sons. It ex­plores things that con­cern me about to­day, in a way that al­lows an au­di­ence to feel safe, be­cause it dis­tances them from to­day. They’re see­ing a world they rec­og­nize, but through a gaze they haven’t quite seen it through be­fore. This is what I’d like to do with all my movies: to make a huge com­ment on to­day.

Q: As a woman of color, what is it that con­cerns you — about the sit­u­a­tion for peo­ple of color, for women, for mem­bers of other re­li­gions? A: I think we should add “for white peo­ple,” as well. When I made “A Way of Life,” I was in my early 30s. Peo­ple said, “This movie ap­pears to be about race, but it’s about a bunch of racist white kids in Wales.” It had no peo­ple of color in it, ex­cept for the Turk­ish neigh­bor, who looks like them, but with a slight tan. That movie was about a type of per­son who, in a com­mu­nity where em­ploy­ment was nonex­is­tent, felt that their frus­tra­tions were not be­ing heard. When you dis­al­low elements of the com­mu­nity to not have a voice, they will take it out on the per­son who has the slight­est dif­fer­ence from them, let alone the per­son who has the most ex­treme dif­fer­ence, as I do, with cer­tain white peo­ple.

Q: How has that dis­con­tent ex­pressed it­self in the U.K.? A: Well, we have Brexit. As some­one born and raised in Eng­land, my whole ex­pe­ri­ence has been one of a coun­try that was strength­en­ing its po­si­tion and iden­tity within Europe. That be­came a part of my iden­tity. With ev­ery move to­ward strength­en­ing that, my life got tan­gi­bly bet­ter. But what feels like progress for me — and I un­der­stand that not ev­ery­body saw that as progress — has kind of been un-picked, and it feel like we’re go­ing back­wards. Some­one once told me that what we think as a steady, up­hill sense of progress is ac­tu­ally more like a coil: You have to go down be­fore you can come up. Per­haps that’s where we are. Who knows where it will lead? I’m an eter­nal op­ti­mist.

Q: You gave a TED talk ti­tled “The Power of Defin­ing Your­self.” Why does the theme of iden­tity ex­ert such a strong pull in your films? A: The ques­tion I al­ways ask is, “Who de­fines you?” De­pend­ing on who you al­low to de­fine your iden­tity, that per­son has the power of your hap­pi­ness, of your per­sonal sense of suc­cess, in their hands. If you’ve con­stantly been told you are not wor­thy — whether you’re black, white, fe­male, gay, straight, what­ever your re­li­gion — if you’re con­stantly be­ing told you are not rel­e­vant, for some of us it’s very dif­fi­cult to find the strength to get on our feet and con­trib­ute pos­i­tively. By hold­ing oth­ers back, we only dam­age our­selves.

Q: You mean the idea that in or­der for some­one to win, some­one else has to lose? A: Right. When you talk about di­ver­sity in film­mak­ing, it has never been about re­duc­ing the num­ber of films made by white straight men of a cer­tain age. It’s not a race to the bot­tom.

Q: You’ve known David Oyelowo since he was cast in “Broth­ers and Sis­ters,” the 1998 British TV series you wrote. As a pro­ducer on “King­dom,” did he ask you to di­rect it?

A: Yes. There I was, in The Hague, and the phone was ring­ing in­ces­santly. “Who­ever you are,” I thought, “Give me a day off.” It was David, call­ing from Africa, where he was making “Queen of Katwe.” “I want to talk to you about a book I’ve read, by Su­san Wil­liams, called “Colour Bar,” about Seretse Khama and Ruth Wil­liams,” he said. “Do you know them?” I was like, “No, David, I haven’t heard of them. Who are these peo­ple?” He had done “Selma,” I had fin­ished “Belle,” and Rosamund Pike had done “Gone Girl.”

Q: Three peo­ple with new­found clout, per­haps?

A: To some ex­tent, yeah, and all Brits. What em­bar­rassed me about not know­ing any­thing about Khama is that I am the child of im­mi­grants who moved from Ghana, the first African coun­try to gain in­de­pen­dence. My dad stood in In­de­pen­dence Square [in Ac­cra] and waved that first flag of Ghana. He lis­tened to [the first Gha­nian prime min­is­ter and pres­i­dent] Kwame Nkrumah’s speeches. I was raised recit­ing those speeches. My fa­ther was no longer alive for me to set him down and say, “Dad, how did I miss this one?” [Screen­writer] Guy Hib­bert had done an amaz­ing job on the screen­play, but we con­tin­ued to work on it to bring cer­tain things out.

Q: Such as? A: I wanted to hear from the African women, to learn their pol­i­tics with a small P. I wanted Seretse to have an in­ner arc that was about democ­racy. I wanted to bring in an in­ter­na­tional con­text so that we un­der­stand that Amer­ica is in the midst of its Jim Crow laws as this is hap­pen­ing. I am the child of Kwane Asante. He would be turn­ing in his grave if I didn’t.

Q: How did your child­hood shape you as an artist?

A: When you are the child of im­mi­grants, par­tic­u­larly the first gen­er­a­tion, your world is politi­cized so early. I un­der­stood very early, as a small child, how race and class in­ter­sected. Some of the neg­a­tive things we ex­pe­ri­enced prob­a­bly had as much to do with the fact that my par­ents had am­bi­tion as it did with the color of their skin. They didn’t re­ally see a ceil­ing for them­selves.

Q: Or, ap­par­ently, for you? A: Ab­so­lutely. One of my fa­ther’s mantras was “There’s no place you do not be­long.”

A United King­dom (PG-13, 111 min­utes). Opens Fri­day in area the­aters.

“I think we do look back when we come to times of strug­gle, to see how far we’ve come and how far we need to move for­ward.”


Di­rec­tor Amma Asante of­fers guid­ance on the set of “A United King­dom,” based on the true story of the con­tro­ver­sial mar­riage of the first prime min­is­ter of Botswana and a white com­moner.

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