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Amma Asante on Channeling the Warrior Queen to Make ‘Belle’

Amma Asante on Channeling the Warrior Queen to Make 'Belle'

In the midst of the 2015 Berlinale, Amma Asante gave the closing speech at an International Women’s Film Festival Network (IWFFN) event on February 12. The director was candid about the “horrific” ten years it took to get her sophomore film, “Belle,” off the ground, while offering a rousing inspirational figure in her (sur)namesake, the Ghanaian warrior queen Yaa Asantewaa, who helped her persevere in her writing and directing career. 

Here is Asante’s clothing speech in full (emphases hers), a poignant and encouraging reminder that no woman fights alone. 

Asante: That indeed is my name.

It
derives from the West African country of Ghana and the Kingdom of the Asantes.

Why
is this relevant?

Well, the Asantes had their very own warrior Queen – much like Boudica. Her name was
Yaa Asantewaa. When the menfolk of the Asante tribe lost hope and failed to
rise up against their colonialist oppressors, it was Yaa Asantewaa who stood
up, roused the troops, got on her horse, and led the Asante men into battle in
a bid to protect the Asante legacy and kingdom.

So
it is from her stock that I derive. I like to think that any woman who chooses
to enter into a world that is predominantly male and traditionally not seen as
the territory of the “woman” is herself a warrior queen. Not because we are
at “war,” but because our battle is in facing challenges that at times may
seem insurmountable.

When
being interviewed by Melissa Silverstein some months ago for Forbes and
recounting the trajectory of my career thus far, Melissa gasped and said words
to the effect of “It seems like you’ve had such a charmed career!” My
response was, “Not at all.” It’s been hard, even horrific at times, and by far
more littered with what might be deemed “failures” than “successes.” Yet the
successes exist – and these, no matter how tiny, are what I hold on to and use
to push myself forward. Yaa Asantewaa did not win her battles against the
English, when we think in terms of what the traditional definitions of “win” or “lose” are. But somehow she won a greater battle, through courage,
dignity, and the refusal to kowtow to injustice.

I
have and still do think of her often on my journey as a female director. I look
back on any of those that have struggled to bring about change. Through their
very presence, I see that courage, dignity, but also tenacity have been key
attributes that have caused them to stand steadfast in the face of adversity.

As
I struggled to make sense of the yawning 10-year gap that slowly unfolded after
my first film and as I fought to achieve my second, one nagging feeling kept my
determination level at ten. That was the idea that, if I gave up, if I did not
remain resolute, no matter the setbacks and at times utter lack of hope, even lack
of belief in myself – if I did not stay resolute, then I would be contributing
to the status quo.

In
the year that British film director Sarah Gavron’s movie “Suffragette” will be released, we are reminded of those women who fought and
literally died so that women could be afforded a basic human right.

And
when I am lucky enough to be in a room full of women, who one way or another
have managed to carve their own journeys into the world of directing and
filmmaking, negotiating and defying the setbacks, what I am always amazed by is the resolve these women exude. They are in themselves real warriors facing
challenges, not just for the successes of today, but in so many ways, so that
WE can have a different tomorrow.

When
as a budding writer I was told, “Movies with black leads tend to struggle,” my
first thought was not actually to be horrified, but to think, OK, l need to
know the unspoken rules of this business that I have chosen so that I can find
ways to negotiate them. In that way, the movie “Belle,” which successfully platformed
actress of color Gugu Mbatha-Raw, was born. With this film, I wanted to
negotiate the issues of race and gender and prove that it could, in fact, be
done.

We
as women filmmakers struggle to be visible – as is often said, we have to work
twice as hard and, sometimes, possess twice the talent. So when after many, many
years of researching and writing my screenplay for “Belle,” my own perceived
talent was literally CUT in half, when the American writing union decided to
GIFT my writing credit and every word of my screenplay to someone I had never
met, who had previously made her own attempts and failed to write a script on
this history, I had a choice. I could either divorce myself from the film
entirely in order to make a stand about the injustice and the treatment I had
suffered, or accept that the value of my writing had caused a movie to be
greenlit and released to box-office success and some acclaim.

Though
the appropriation of my credit was a huge blow and setback to me as a woman
filmmaker who, statistically, will take considerably longer to get the next
film off the ground that I may write than my male counterpart — and also
statistically, will have to struggle significantly harder than my male
counterpart to be recognized as a writer — I chose to take a breath, move
forward, and see the bigger picture, which is that the very existence
of my film, its lead character of color, and its box-office impact, would say
more for our industry tomorrow than for my losses today.

I
have stood my ground in the face of this injustice in discussing the truth of
my writing credit, but also played the “game” of the bigger picture.

The
setbacks, knowingly or unknowingly, are designed to make us give up. And yet if
one by one we did this, one thing is for sure: We will never see change. That — and that alone — is the simple reason why we have to be warriors, why we have to
keep banging on those doors, putting our creativity down on paper, picking up
digital cameras and shooting our films, lobbying for the funding of women-centered stories, for women-driven stories, and for women-helmed stories.

It is
imperative to our tomorrow.

One
last thing: I am a Black Woman, a minority existing within a further minority
when it comes to women in film. But as a black female, I know and understand
that I belong to a community that is “woman,” whether black or white, and whose
existence allows my voice to be stronger. Together, we are stronger. In the end
we face the same battles, must surmount similar hurdles, and as a sisterhood we
must — MUST — look out for each other.

I have your back.

So,
with all the creativity bubbling in this room, I say this to you: During those
times when you feel like giving up — they do and will come — it’s natural! I
offer you my African name, a reminder of Yaa Asantewaa the Warrior Queen, so that you may remember who you are and know that you are never alone in
this struggle for change.

This Asante is right there with you.

(Note: The WGA awarded the “Belle” writing credit to Misan Sagay.)

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