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.