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Heroines of Cinema: Why Amma Asante is a Ground-Breaking Director

Heroines of Cinema: Why Amma Asante is a Ground-Breaking Director

Here’s an extremely abridged version of Amma Asante’s career as a director. Back in the early 2000s, she was touting a feature script she had written (“A Way of Life”) to the British Film Institute, while actively seeking a director. The BFI executives then suggested that she herself direct the film. At first appalled by the idea, they offered to fund a month of film school and a test shoot for the feature. Asante eventually agreed, made the film, and subsequently won the BAFTA for Best Debut Feature. Ten years later, she made her second feature “Belle”, released this week in theatres to acclaim. Now she’s been hired to direct a thriller for Warner Bros by the producer of “Batman Returns”.

Amma Asante herself is admirably honest about what made her become a director. “Essentially I was forced”, she told Crave Online in Toronto last year. The truth is that people saw potential in her as a director that perhaps even she didn’t perceive. In a Women And Hollywood interview, she describes her initial reaction thus: “I sort of shrunk back into the sofa and said, “No, no. That’s not something I can do”. But her backers put their money where their mouth was, and Asante’s directorial career became a reality. It’s safe to say that she has more than delivered on both that potential and their investment.

I think it’s important to discuss the evolution of Asante’s career, particularly when celebrating the fact that she is one of shamefully few female directors of color to see a film released this or any other year. She may joke that “she was forced” to direct, but underlying it is a basic truth – some of the best potential directors out there are not directing films, because they have never been encouraged or made to believe they are capable. Not all, but many successful women directors like Sofia Coppola or Lena Dunham were lucky enough to grow up in an environment that encouraged the validity of their artistic aspirations. It’s just that, in our culture as a whole, we are massively more encouraging of the artistic aspirations of white men.

But the reason I consider Amma Asante ground-breaking is not because
she is a female director of color. While I think it is important to take
affirmative action at every level of the industry in order to remove
some of the barriers that prevent it from being a level playing field,
it is equally important that once directors actually produce work, they
are judged on the work alone (and I’m sure any director would wish that
so). The good news is that, in Amma Asante’s case, her new film “Belle”
is one that is both excellent and deceptively but compellingly
subversive.

Critics are more used to using a term like
“ground-breaking” in regard to the artistic audacity on evidence in a
film like “There Will be Blood”. However, to my mind, narrative audacity
can be equally ground-breaking, not only when it comes without such
accompanying artistic virtuosity but because of it. It’s why I found
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” a far more subversive film than “12 Years of
Slave”. The latter film was shocking and visually stunning but
politically straightforward. The former film was bloated and cheesy but
with a message that essentially debated the 20th century
African-American dilemma of whether to assimilate or rebel, and
concluded that the answer was to get rowdy. Guess which one the Oscars
embraced?

Amma Asante’s “Belle” is, in *almost* every respect, a
film we have seen before. The lavish period costumes, the upper crust
English accents, the sweeping panoramas of British stately homes. But
that’s the point. For there is one element that is very unusual for the
genre – its protagonist, the real-life mixed race aristocrat Dido
Elizabeth Belle. Asante has spoken of the reality that actresses of
color are often not able to participate in costume dramas. “What does
every actress want to do at some point?” she asked Crave Online. “A
period drama with the beautiful sets, trussed up in beautiful corsets
and all of those clothes, but where was the opportunity for us to do
that? Where was the place where we could tell a story that included
us?”.

The answer of course, was in the story of Dido, but given
the historical context of slavery, Asante could very easily have made a
film that was more hard-hitting. She took a conscious decision not to,
and for me, that is what makes the film so subversive. The plot is very
focused on Dido’s romantic fortunes, something that makes the film very
marketable to the Jane Austen crowd. I have no doubt that Asante was
aware of this, and in the hands of another director or producer this
could be seen as a purely cynical or at least savvy move to package the
story for a wider audience.

But the truth is infinitely more
powerful, as Asante revealed in her Women and Hollywood interview.  “If
I’m honest, I wanted to show a woman of color being loved. We don’t see
it that often. I wanted to change the conversation a little bit – we are
loved, [and] we can be loved. Dido was valuable enough to be loved, she
was worthy of being loved, and she was loved. Her challenge was showing
people the right way to love her in the way that she needed to be”.

This
is what gives the film its power, and why it matters that it was
written and directed by a director like Asante, who is able to take a
painful social ill like the misrepresentation of women of color and use
her empathy and drive to redress the balance. The result is an easily
relatable love story, but one which illuminates powerful themes of race
and prejudice via a historical narrative that is unjustly unfamiliar to
most audiences. The fact that it is delivered in a style that mainstream
audiences can readily digest is the reason it is quite so
ground-breaking. Don’t be fooled.

Heroines of Cinema is a bi-weekly column written by Matthew Hammett Knott, a writer and filmmaker based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

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