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ScreenTalks Archive: Amma Asante on Belle

two women in period dressees
23 Jan 2017
28 min listen

In this ScreenTalk, Amma Asante talks to film critic Catherine Bray about her second feature, costume drama, Belle.

About Amma Asante
The most high profile black female director working today, Amma Asante made her directorial debut in 2004 with, A Way of Life, winning her 17 international awards including a BAFTA for 'Outstanding Debut by a British Filmmaker'. More recently, she won the hearts of critics and audiences with her interracial love story, A United Kingdom.

Belle (2013)

Set in 18th Century England, Belle is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle - the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a British admiral. Discovered living in poverty in the West Indies, Belle is taken in by her uncle Lord Mansfield, and raised in 'polite' society - breaking all the social rules of the time. Meanwhile Lord Mansfield is ruling over a trial so important it would help abolish the slave trade in Britain...


two women in period costumes

ScreenTalks Archive: Amma Asante

Join us as we head into our cinema archive, dust off the tapes and rediscover exclusive conversations with some of the world's leading filmmakers and film fans.


AA: Amma Asante 
CB: Catherine Bray 
EEJ: Ellen E. Jones 

EEJ: (Shutter sound and music starts) 

Hello and welcome to Barbican ScreenTalks – a new series that sees us re-releasing exclusive conversations with some of the world’s leading film-makers, and film fans. 

Our rich archive of ScreenTalk Q&As goes back decades and includes interviews with greats such as British film’s social conscience - Ken Loach, and Monty Python auteur - Terry Gilliam. 

But in this episode, we’ll hear from the most high profile black British female director working today. 

Born in London to Ghanian parents, Amma Asante started her career as a child actress in Grange Hill and Desmond’s. 

She turned to screenwriting in her late teens, and made her directorial debut in 2004 with the gritty A Way Of Life. That film, about a teenage mum in south Wales, went on to win 17 international awards, including the BAFTA for ‘Outstanding Debut by a British filmmaker’. 

More recently, Asante has won the hearts of critics and audiences with her interracial love story, A United Kingdom. 

But in this ScreenTalk from 2014, Amma Asante talks to film critic Catherine Bray about her second feature, costume drama Belle. 

Set in eighteenth century England, Belle was inspired by a painting of two young women, sent to Asante on a postcard by her producer. An exploration of class, gender, race and romance, is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle - the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of a British admiral.

When she’s discovered living in poverty in the West Indies, Belle is taken in by her uncle Lord Mansfield, and raised in ‘polite’ society contravenes all the social rules of the time. Meanwhile Lord Mansfield is ruling over a trial so important it would help abolish the slave trade in Britain… 

In the interview you’re about to hear, Amma Asante explains just how the painting of Belle and her cousin captured her imagination. She reveals why she was immediately drawn to lead actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. And she discusses the unique perspective she has as a woman of colour working in British film. 

I’m Ellen E Jones, and this is Barbican ScreenTalks, with Amma Asante… 


AA: Thank you 

CB: Amma, I was wondering if we could start with what I think is one of the strongest things about this film, is that we've got both a kind of beautiful, romantic Jane Austen style period piece that would probably appeal to anyone who has seen something like Downton Abbey, and then in there, you've got this critical legal case that was a turning point in the history of human rights! And you've woven those two things together seamlessly. Was that always the aim from the beginning? 

AA: Yes. I was one of those little girls that got lost in the romance of the period drama, the Austen-esque dramas, the Pride and the Prejudice dramas, and the Sense and Sensibility and yet, as a filmmaker I couldn't see where I could tell a story where I could hang my hook on a story without also looking into the trade, the world that was providing the finances for this gentile society. And so for me, the painting in itself was such a wonderful gift because it brought together these two elements that for me were completely fascinating. You know, on the one hand you do have this Austenesque society, this Austenesque world and then on the other hand you have the aspect of Dido Belle's life which attaches her to Lord Mansfield who is presiding over this case. And it was a perfect way for me to look at how this gentile world and society was financed. And also, it helped with the complexity that we have when we try to express Britain's involvement in the slave trade on screen, in film. because you know, essentially, I always say 'we' and then I have to speak as slightly schizophrenic as I'm both black and I'm British for the moment, I'm speaking as a Brit. But, we the Brits were the middle men, we were the providers. We were the people that provided the slaves. So we would go to America, pick the slaves up and then provide the slaves to the West Indies and the Caribeean. It was a perfect way for me, by going through Dido's life and looking at how as an aristocrat and the child of a slave at the same time, I was also then able to tie Britain's role in the slave trade in quite well. And I thought that was a great gift that came to me in the form of a postcard.

CB: Yeah, absolutely. And it's true to me that you're not focusing on one of the issues, you're not focusing just on race, you also, you know, you've got a kind of feminist subtext going on, you've got class in there, it's a real brew of all of these things and yet so romantic all at the same time. 

AA: Yeah, I mean I think for anybody out there that might have seen my first film, I don't like to look at things, if you'll pardon the pun, as just 'black and white'. I think most areas of life we're living through the areas that exist in between. And for me, race is not a concept that you can take alone. I am a black woman and the fact that I am a woman has everything to do with who I am and so does race. And that ties me in to different groups of people because of that. And the fact that I'm a black woman of whatever particular class I come from is relevant I think also to who I am. And this was a period that was, you know, as we come into the story, Britain is really, it's going through a transition, it's on the cusp of change, there are so many things that are becoming different, if that makes sense. If you think about marriage, the status marriage was still very much there, but the love marriage was just about to pierce the conscious and the idea that you marry somebody because you loved them, and not because they could give you status necessarily. Slavery in the grand scheme of things was going to be abolished. I mean, it was still a long way away, it was still a lifetime away, but it was still in the grand scheme of things, a short period away. So there were all these things that were changing, new money was coming in, all of this stuff was coming in and I thought that it would be difficult to just tell a story of race. Not that it would be difficult, I thought it would be disingenuous to not also... I think what you do also when you speak about all the other elements is you remind everyone this is about humanity. This is about us as human beings, and not just about a percentage of our DNA that separates us, in many ways.

CB: Yeah, I love how you capture the servants in the background. It sometimes bothers me when I'm watching a Jane Austen adaptation. They can often be quite feminist but the servants are like these automatons that aren't really fully people 

AA: Well, it was interesting because, you know, Mabel, the sort of servant in this story, the main servant in this story, is a character that didn't obviously exist in Dido's story, I created her. Because I wanted to show you who Dido Belle could have been. And in Lord Mansfield - I'm sorry everybody, by the way, I've got a really sore throat! I don't normally sound like this! 

But with Lord Mansfield's choice came courage and love. It took a lot of courage I think for him to go against the rules of the time but also love. And for me, it was very important that I show a) Dido coming into contact with another person of colour, for many reasons, but also to represent who her, you know, the side of her that was her mother. But also, I felt it was really important for you to see that Lord Mansfield chose to educate Dido. They chose to dress her in jewels. They chose to raise her as an aristocrat. When actually what would have been probably much more acceptable, according to the rules, might have been to take her in but have her as a servant. And keep her warm, and dry and fed and taken care of, but kept as a servant. And I wanted you to see that's actually who Dido could have been. And yet, he chose not to do that.

CB: And that's probably a good point to talk about the lady of the hour. Did you know the moment that you saw her that this was the right person to star? 

AA: Well, it's interesting because I knew Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays the title role, I knew her before we started casting for Belle. And I knew her because she'd come in to audition for me for a film that I will now make in 2015, but at the time I was going to make it in 2009, which also involves the life of a mixed race girl but instead of it being in the 18th century it's in the 1940s. And so she had come in to audition for that role and yeah, Gugu is someone who has presence and definitely takes your breath away when she walks into the room and hadn't yet gone off to make her name in America. She hadn't yet played Ophelia against Jude Law's Hamlet on Broadway, and she hadn't done the TV series that she went on to do in America. So, you know, she was a wonderful and stunning, of course, actress. And then, once I started working on Belle, it was important for me to start thinking about all the girls that could have been appropriate for this role and not just for myself, and not just for reasons that we honoured Dido's story, but also the financiers want you to know that you've exhausted every single possibility out there and you've really got the right person. Because this is the person who has got to carry the movie. She's surrounded by incredible, incredible thespians, that we know and love, but this is her story. So, Gugu was reading all of the drafts of the script, as I was kind of developing the story that I wanted to tell, and she's smart. And she understood the kind of story that I wanted to tell. She understood that this was an internal journey as much as an external one. She realised that what I wanted to do with Dido was take her from a girl to a woman. A girl who says 'as you wish, sir' to a woman who metaphorically says, 'no, as I wish', who has a political awakening. And this story I was going to have to tell in a way, you know, in a period that was very restrained and very restricted and yet this was a character that was finding her voice. And so it was about somebody who could express all those things - be familiar and unfamiliar. Because we've seen her, we know her, we've seen her in Austen stories before but not quite in this way. She's the other within. Mainly it was how smart Gugu is that really attracted me to her. And so it was a long process but there's no doubt she was a head and shoulders above everybody and that this role was hers. And it was just about us coming to a place where we thought, 'yeah, this is absolutely right for both of us'. And then we just became partners in line. 

CB: Now, I'm sure you've all got questions that you're dying to ask - do we have any questions?

Q1: Hi, I wasn't sure of the balance between the question of colour and the question of illegitimacy and whether the social rules were more to do with illegitimacy? 

AA: You're not supposed to be sure. That's deliberate. We will never know. I mean, yes it's true, the fact that in certain circumstances the fact that Dido was illegitimate would have stopped her coming to the table and in fact, Lady Mary, Lord Mansfield's sister, being an unmarried woman, would have meant that in certain circumstances she wouldn't have been able to be at the table either. For instance if there were more married couples at the table than the seating allowed, she would be the one who would be bumped off, that kind of thing. And the rules of the time were so complex, there was so much applied onto everybody to kind of, do the right thing, we will never know whether the decisions the family made were because she was illegitimate or because she was a woman of colour. And my guess is that it would have been a combination. It would have just been the two things together meant that the family could themselves ignore the rules of society but what they wouldn't be able to do was impress them on other people who might wish to sort of abide by those rules, or sort of stick to those rules. The idea is, we're happy to eat with you but we can't force other people to if they don't want to in formal situations. So it's deliberate.

Q2: I just wondered how you read that Zoffany double portrait which is such an interesting image, because it's two figures but they're not exactly symmetrical, although they're deeply entwined, it seems like they are ambiguous. Not unlike Lord Mansfield himself, who was, a man of great conscience but far from a [inauduble]… 

AA: Well, for me, the painting is everything. It's the reason why I'm sitting here today and without that painting, had I for instance known about Dido Elizabeth Belle and that painting hadn't existed, I'm not sure I would have been the storyteller behind this movie. So the painting for me is what inspired and evoked certain emotions in me and inspired me to want to make the film. My journey to the painting, without knowing I was on that journey was, I live in Holland, and I am married to a Dane. It's a long story as to why we live in Holland but, one Saturday afternoon where my guess is he had nothing better to do, he decided, my husband decided that he was going to take me to an exhibition in Amsterdam which was looking at the history of people of colour in European art from about the 14th century onwards. And this was a very, very long exhibition, about 4 hours, and it was the last thing I thought I wanted to do on a sunny Amsterdam afternoon, but in fact I think it was perhaps one of the best things I ever did in my life. And what I learned and what I absolutely did not know, well, obviously subconsciously I knew certain things, I knew that we were always subservient during the 18th century, when we were painted alongside Caucasian people but I didn't understand the rules and the actual facts of that, all the kind of, intellectual sensibilities behind it, if that made any sense. And what I learned was that people of colour were always painted lower down. We were never allowed to look out at the painter, because that was too much power. This is if we were painted alongside a Caucasian, we were always usually reaching out, often reaching up in some way, which would draw your eye to the main protagonist, or the main muse of the painting. And if we weren't reaching out then we were offering something, like fruit, which expressed the wealth of the Caucasian person and also expressed to the viewer that we were the servant, we were the subservient one. 

So, having learned this and being completely fascinated, because this whole journey that I went on during this exhibition also took me right up until we became front and centre of paintings, until we were the muse in Brazilian paintings, all that kind of thing. 

So outside of Europe. So when I was sent this postcard by my producer, Damian Jones, I immediately this was the complete opposite. I didn't have to be an art historian to notice this was Dido, painted slightly higher than Elizabeth. She's looking directly out of the painting which is such a strong position for her to be in and one that we never saw black people in at all. And it's actually Elizabeth who is reaching out to her, which draws your eye to her - so those were the first things I noticed. And then as I started to explore the painting more I learned that 18th century people, let alone women, were very, very - well - never painted in motion and if you look at Dido's motion she's forward, she's moving forward and pointing at herself. I learned that the fruit is representative of wealth. Her dress is actually more modern, Elizabeth's is very old school - it in many ways is the old world coming together with the new world. Not necessarily England coming together with Africa but in many ways what became somewhat clear to me was this was perhaps Lord Mansfield's vision of a world in which both of his nieces could be looked at by everybody as equals. And that by Dido's motion, what the painter was doing was making a very progressive choice. A very modern, contemporary choice. Now, there is another way to interpret the painting, but actually there is no artistic back up for, in terms of what art meant in the 18th century, there's no back up for it so it's 'oh, she's holding fruit, she's a servant'. Well no, fruit meant wealth. 'Oh, she's definitely a servant because it's Elizabeth grabbing her'. Well I personally see it as a hand of affection. So when you look at the sort of other interpretations of it there's sort of no historic art explanation that explains it. So for me what I saw was love, courage, politics, art, history - all of these things combined into one. But for me they were all positive

CB: So the film in microcosm really? 

AA: Absolutely. You know, absolutely inspired by the painting. 

CB: Any more questions? 

Q3: Did you find that there was a particular challenge getting the film made in the first place given that there are still issues of representation, particularly with women of colour in a prominent role? 

AA: Well, I know that my producer, Damian Jones, before he sent me the postcard himself, he'd been trying to get a movie off the ground about Dido Belle's history for quite some time. He had worked with a writer previously to try and get a script off the ground, I know that they had not been able to raise financing to get to production stage and so by the time the movie came to me... The movie actually came to me because Damian Jones and somebody, one of the organisations, the BFI that had been trying to get the script to a stage where they could attract production financing from other people as well, the two of them got together and suggested that the postcard should be sent to me and that I should begin a process. Which for me was a three and a half to four year process bringing together the film that you see today. You know, yes and no, because we had the BFI on board and the BFI had already financed my first film, had financed the film I mentioned earlier that Gugu Mbatha-Raw had auditioned for, so had basically financed most feature films that I had written. So they were already on board and their wish was to really get me also back behind the camera as quickly as possible so that I didn't lose momentum because it was coming up for six or seven years since I'd been behind the camera. So they as an organisation were very much on board. I mean, in terms of trying to sell the idea of a costume drama with a black lead, because that's the movie I wanted to make, the movie that Damian had been trying to get off the ground previously was a movie about Belle and Beth equally, in what was, well it's a fundamentally different story. But my wish was to tell a story about Belle and have her front and centre. There were difficulties in that. I mean, I look back now and I wonder whether those difficulties were any greater than any other movie might have had. I mean, on average it takes seven or eight years to get a British movie off the ground and by the time I came on board and started my work to decide what story I wanted to tell, what themes I wanted to look at and express the nuances and the subtext I wanted, you know, it was four years or so. So, it's hard for me to sort of just put it down to that she was a woman of colour and that we were putting her front and centre. But certainly it wasn't the easiest journey but we at least had financiers who were backers from the beginning who were very committed to telling the story with us.

CB: There was a question in the second row, down here... 

Q4: Not contented with all the other things you handled, you also handled sexual assault by the extra vile brother. It can't have been an easy decision to put that in? 

AA: I mean, it was and it wasn't. I mean, it wasn't because what we're speaking about here in terms of that assault, and throughout the whole film is the value of a woman. I mean, the whole, one of the big themes in the movie is the value of human beings and then in particular the value of a woman and then the value of a black woman, a woman of colour. The value of what might have been considered exotic at the time. And the vulnerability - the strength of the woman but also the vulnerability of the woman. And so in that sense, it was sad that I was going to show that there was no one homogeneous view of Dido, that there would be many views. To a servant she would be an aristocrat and to an aristocrat, she might be just the child of a slave and dismissed in that manner. So on the one hand, it was really sad for me that I was going to have to show this, but on the other hand it would have been totally disingenuous not to have. Because in the world that I was deciding to show her in, which is a world where she moved around on her own, which of course wouldn't have happened in that way, because she would have been a young woman and she would always have had to have a man or an older woman with her, there was no way that her vulnerability wouldn't have been challenged. It's always about truth in the end. No matter how dramatic you get or how much of a commercial story you're telling or how much fiction you have to attach with a historical element to express your messages or your story. In the end you have to find the truth of the characters and of that story. So, in many ways in order to sort of, you know, push my discussion with the audience as to the value and as to the ridiculous idea that we could offer each other as fellow human beings, that we could have higher and lower value. I had to have that assault

CB: OK, question down here and I think that's probably going to have to be the last question unless it turns out to be very quick 

Q5: Just on the last point, you sort of mentioned the artistic license you had to take. Were there any items that you sort of feel guilty about for taking too much artistic license? And a quick other one, relating to the very start, you said about it was a time of big change and all the rest of it, do you think it has an equivalent? Do you think we have an equivalent now as to the changes that's going through... 

AA: That's a question I haven't been asked in six months of doing press! I have to say... OK the first question was liberties - is there anything, no. No. I mean, no! I'm not, because you have to tell this story in one hour and forty five minutes. And I think you'll all agree there's a lot in it and there's a lot of stuff that you're trying to weave in and communicate to an audience and kind of remind everybody that all of these things are connected. And if you think about the way that I'm speaking now, we talk about realistic dialogue, and actually if you ever put realistic dialogue on screen, you'd have all left the room because look at me, I'm rambling! You know, there's realistic dialogue and then there's the perception of realistic dialogue and that's what we do as screenwriters, we create a perception of realistic dialogue. And in a way, we have to sort of do that with movie making and storytelling. I have to try and create an idea of a world to you in a very short space of time. And so I don't feel guilty about doing anything, no. I mean, look, everybody, John Davinier was not a lawyer in real life. She really married him, she had children with him but I made him a lawyer because I needed to communicate to you all, very quickly, the two sides of the question regarding the [??] and it was very important in order to do that. So, in many ways, there isn't anything. I did try to create elements of fiction that would support the history and not undermine it and also not patronise my audience. But I am a big romantic. So, the second part of your question... 

Q5: is about equivalents for today… 

AA: It's really hard for me to know but I often wonder what, in 200 years, human beings will look back at and wonder why we were so unevolved about. What are the elements from today that will have changed so much. And I think while I'm standing in it, I'm finding it really difficult to know, but what I do hope, my genuine wish, is that it will one day have the impact on human beings that the painting had on me. And that's what I can say I hope for the future.

CB: Lovely. And the final question? From the lady up in the corner. Can I just say also if anyone hasn't seen Amma's 2004 BAFTA winning film, A Way of Life, it is very good indeed. Very different but also very powerful so do check that out if you get chance.

 AA: This is not one to take your children to though! [laughter] That's the only thing I will say.

Q6: Do you feel that the election of President Obama has allowed such subjects as this to be dealt with realistically? To have a more open dialogue and to look at these people as real people as they are? 

AA: I would say that in terms of all of you as audience members, I think you've always had the capability, the ability and the wish to do that. I think the difference with Obama and you know sometimes it's called within the entertainment industries, the 'Obama Effect', I think the difference is that the fact that he was elected has made financiers have to stop and think that people like me, those of us behind the camera, who may then go on to tell stories that will allow you to identify with a woman of colour, whatever nationality you are, those people, you know, need the opportunity to tell those stories if we're not going to look outdated. If we're not going to look behind. I mean, one of my sayings is, we've had 2 million years to evolve you know, what the hell has been going on. And I think the one thing that film cannot afford to do is look as though it is behind the times because art is always supposed to keep up with the times and be ahead of it. And so I think the election of Obama has allowed filmmakers like me to be able to tell the stories. I think, had we been allowed 30 years ago, you would be identifying in hopefully the same way that you identify today with or without Obama. It's just that the powers that be have had to think again in terms of allowing a diversity behind the camera. And that's not just people of colour, that's women, that's younger filmmakers. You know, when I was a child actress, I'd never heard of directors who were 25 and 26 and now you're everywhere. So, I think for me that's the key. 

CB: Wonderful, thank you. 

AA: I'd like to ask you what you think but I'll do that afterwards 

CB: We could talk all night but we'd better not. Thank you ever so much for coming tonight and I hope you'll all join me in thanking Amma for a fascinating film and a brilliant Q&A. 

AA: Thank you. [Applause] 

EEJ: Thanks for listening to this Barbican ScreenTalk with Amma Asante.

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