The award-winning British filmmaker discusses the kinds of films she likes to make and the awards buzz around her period feature, Belle.
Director-writer Amma AsanteOriginally aired on May 9, 2014
Tavis: All too often in movies, 18th century Britain is solely depicted in the most gentile of terms; Jane Austen meets Masterpiece Theater. But a new film titled “Belle” is taking a very different approach, showing how all that wealth and elegance were paid for by the slave trade.
“Belle” is directed by Amma Asante who won the coveted BAFTA award for most promising newcomer for her first film, “A Way of Life,” back in 2005.
It took almost a decade, though, for her to find another film that she wanted to make. Let’s take a look at a scene from “Belle” which has just opened in limited release.
Tavis: So I went to – the studio’s always very nice to me to send me a copy of a screener that I can pop in at home or in my office if I want to.
Amma Asante: Great.
Tavis: I want to avoid the crowds. But I really wanted to see this in a theater…
Asante: I’m glad.
Tavis: And I went to the ArcLight, one of my favorite theaters here in town, to see this and I was just blown away by the interactive relationship that this crowd had with the film. I’m used to that when I go to the Black movie theater because we are very expressive when we go see films, but white folk are usually more well-behaved.
But at the ArcLight, I was just blown away by the applause, by the cheers. I mean, the audience at the ArcLight was totally into this and I said Miss Asante has something on her hands. It was a beautiful film.
Asante: Thank you so much.
Tavis: It’s a beautiful film.
Asante: Thank you so much. Well, for me, I always have approached film in the sense that it should be a conversation with the audience, like for it to be alive. Like there’s a screenplay and then there’s a movie and the movie is a completely different animal.
And for me, a movie doesn’t become one until it meets its audience. If nobody every sees it, what is it? So for me, this always had to be – I created it to be a conversation with the audience.
Tavis: Well, it was in the theater that I went to and I suspect in other theaters as well. I saw those – this is inside baseball, but I saw those opening week numbers and, per screen, you guys were in limited release when you first rolled out…
Asante: That’s right.
Tavis: But per screen average, you beat “Spider Man.”
Asante: I know…
Tavis: That’s a big deal [laugh].
Asante: We whipped “Spider Man” and that is my claim to fame today.
Tavis: Yeah, you beat “Spider Man.”
Asante: Exactly, exactly. No, that was incredible, like we did everything we could. We had a lot of people in the community who were out there. I call them “Belle” ambassadors who were out there spreading the word.
You know, we had a lot of private screenings as well with people who could spread the word. We had an incredible screening. The NAACP did an incredible screening. If you want to talk about interactive, that was interactive.
Tavis: I can imagine [laugh].
Asante: It was fantastic and it was wonderful to kind of really hear that kind of reaction from the audience, but I think it has been working.
The word is spreading. People are taking their moms, they’re taking their sisters, guys are being dragged to the cinema and coming out thinking I didn’t think that was a movie for me, and yet it was. So it’s great.
And, you know, I have a hashtag on Twitter which is “change the game.” We can change the game with this movie. But if we don’t go out, if we don’t support movies like this, we won’t see more of them.
Tavis: I want to come back to the film in just a second. But when you say change the game, your hashtag, what do you mean by change the game?
Asante: I wanted to prove that, with a period drama, I could put a female of color at the lead and it could be a box office success, that universally people would go out and see a movie because, you know, constantly we’re told as filmmakers, we’re told as writers and directors, oh, it’s difficult to sell, you know, a Black female lead and sell it around the world.
You know, there are some territories that aren’t so keen on it. People don’t like to go out and kind of see that. And I wanted to show that a female director, but also even more so a female at the front center of the piece could appeal to audiences across the board.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that this is a project – and I want to say this so you don’t have to – but it is a project that has Black women at the epicenter of it, a Black woman directing it, Black woman writing it, Black woman starring in it, and yet it’s being met with wonderful applause and critique and appeal for the audience.
What do you make of that, or more importantly, what should Hollywood make of that?
Asante: I think Hollywood needs to stop and listen, stop and listen and take a look. I mean, I knew that if I got this right, if I could get the story right, if I could get it crafted the way it needed to be and if I could get the right actress for this movie, I always had the belief, I always had the belief that it could do this and it would do this.
Both as a woman filmmaker and as a filmmaker of color, I always believed it. So I knew I was putting together something that was important if I could get it right.
What I make of it is that, you know, we can do it. We can find those financiers who will put money into the one-off Black movie. But ultimately, ultimately, we can keep giving, keep giving, keep giving.
But if Hollywood won’t support and if audiences won’t go see the movies, you know, then we’re banging our heads against the brick wall.
So I always say it’s a collaboration. It’s a large community thing, like we all have our part to play. Hollywood has to be brave. Audiences have to say not I’m going to wait for this to come out on DVD, but I’m going to go support this while it’s in the theaters now.
And we, the women of color, and the female directors and Black directors, have to keep pushing at the door. We can’t take no for an answer. We can’t.
Tavis: I jumped in so fast because I know the storyline because I saw the movie. I jumped in so quick applauding you and your efforts and that of the cast. I want to talk about the cast in just a second here.
But because I jumped so fast, we should probably back up right quick for those who haven’t seen it since it just came out and ask you to say a bit about what the story is. What is the story of “Belle?”
Asante: Well, in its most simplistic form, this is a story of a biracial girl who is born a product of a West African slave woman named Maria Belle and a British naval officer, Captain Sir John Lindsay.
When he finds her mother aboard a captured Spanish slave ship, there is a union and Dido Belle is born of this union. At the age of six, she is adopted into her father’s family, so his uncle’s family, who are one of the wealthiest families in England.
Her father is the highest judge in the land, the Lord Chief Justice. Next to the king, he’s the most powerful man in England and he and his wife together choose to raise this biracial girl as a lady, an aristocrat, as a high-class English woman.
It is a love story. It’s a romantic love story about – and it’s based on a true story. I should say that “Belle” is based on a true story.
Tavis: I was about to say that for you, yeah, yeah.
Asante: So it is a sweeping love story about how she comes to meet the man she will eventually marry. But it’s also a paternal love story. It’s a love story between father and daughter and how this adoptive father who is actually her great uncle makes the choice at a time when it was unheard of to love this biracial child.
Underneath, you know, it’s a story that I created to have some hefty themes, so it’s inspired by a painting where Lord Mansfield, Belle’s uncle, decided to immortalize her forever in a portrait where she stands next to her white cousin as an equal.
Tavis: There it is onscreen, yeah.
Tavis: Isn’t that a great picture? That’s a great portrait.
Asante: And also a painting like this where a Black person and a white person are treated as equals in this period is unheard of. So when I looked at that painting, for me what I saw was a combination of politics, art, history. Those were the big themes and race and the subthemes of gender, equality, identity.
You know, all of those come to play in what on the surface is a very simple story. Now against the backdrop, here’s the important thing. Of this love story, these two love stories, both romantic and paternal, is this seminal case.
It’s a case which comes from the slave trade and it’s a case in which over 100 slaves are thrown overboard, jettisoned from a ship, and drowned for the insurance money. Now you could do that in 18th century England. You could drown your cargo, and we were cargo.
But the question was, was there a reason to? You had to have a legal reason to be able to do so. In other words, if they were endangering the ship in some way. So the whole question that’s running through the movie is was it legal for this captain to drown these slaves?
Now this case comes to Lord Mansfield to preside over and it’s going to make – however he decides is going to make a big difference to the slave trade in England.
So the question is, is this child of color that he’s bringing up going to have any kind of impact on his decision in this slave case. And here’s what I think the movie brings that’s different. We knew that you could make money out of selling human beings, out of selling people of color.
What I didn’t know until I started my research and started to learn about Lord Mansfield was that you could make money out of killing people. You could make money out of killing Black people. That’s what I didn’t know. So this is what is new that the story brings, I think.
Tavis: What’s amazing about – there’s so many things that are amazing about it, but one of the things amazing about it is that the treatment that you give as the screenplay for this, it isn’t didactive, it’s not proselytizing in any way, and yet those hefty, weighty issues come to bear.
And you get it because you feel it when you see the film, not because it was preached to you. And that’s difficult to do with these kinds of issues.
Asante: Really hard, really hard.
Tavis: How’d you guys pull that off?
Asante: For me, it was always a balance. What I’ve always understood from film and the reason why I wanted to be a filmmaker and the reason why I hung in there over those 10 years, you know, between winning the Academy Award in England and now, was that I’ve always felt that film can open the eyes of audiences in the ways that sometimes newspapers can’t, sometimes news stories can’t.
You know, you can get people to think and, for me, what it was about was getting people to ask themselves the questions.
Kind of holding a mirror up to society and asking questions rather than giving a message. I think, when you give a message, it can sometimes be off-putting in film. There’s a time and a place for giving a message and I’m not always sure that it’s in film.
So for me, because I wanted this to appeal to everybody, you know, because in many ways this is also a good part of our history. I mean, Dido was a very important member of the family, but she wasn’t an equal member of the family totally for many reasons, but she was loved.
What she had to do was show people the right way to love her. And I think, when you bring people into a story in a way that you’re not blaming, but you’re saying come explore this with me.
As the filmmaker, come explore a story that I want to tell you with me. People feel, well, there’s less guilt and I think, when there’s less guilt, ears are more open.
Tavis: Although I don’t know how one could see this and not come down on the right side of the moral question. And I’m rooting for Lord Mansfield the whole movie because I want him to get this decision right. I don’t want to give it away.
Tavis: But I’m rooting for him the entire film because I want him to get this right because it makes a statement on so many levels about his relationship with Dido.
Asante: His daughter, yeah.
Tavis: Dido, his daughter, with his family, with the world, with his country.
Asante: It’s micro and macro, right?
Tavis: At the same time, yeah.
Asante: It is. And you know what? The very important climax of the movie, you know, actually involves all three of the main characters in the movie, the romantic love of Dido, Dido Belle herself, and her father.
Now we had to shoot that eight hours after my own father died and, you know, for me, whilst everybody was telling me don’t forget, this must be a love story, this must be a love story, I always said no, but it must be a paternal love story too because I wanted to pay homage to my own relationship with my own father who I did not know was going to die when I began the movie.
So he dies in my arms and, eight hours later, I’m shooting these scenes and the ground is still moving underneath me. It is a different world for me. I step out into a different world and I’m doing this through tears.
But what it meant was that we all came together in knowing that moment when Lord Mansfield is about to make his decision that this, apart from being this macro decision that is going to affect the world, has to be a decision that also is about this father who’s trying to just – he’s just a man in many ways trying to raise his daughter, trying to navigate her through her upbringing, and is going to be one that pronounces a value on her.
So it’s about is he going to give this gift of validity to his child as her father, as somebody who’s important in her life or is not? You know, I’m honoring my own father in that moment and it was a cathartic moment for me.
Tavis: What pushes you eight hours after your father dies in your arms to continue filming? Why go ahead?
Asante: Because my father was an accountant. I have no member of my family that’s in this industry, but it was my father who recognized my creative bone, recognized that I had a skill for writing and encouraged me to be in this tough, difficult industry, one in which I rarely see anybody who’s my skin tone or my shape.
To be the tenacious woman that I am today, to be able to do what I do, is all because of him. I would be nothing without him.
And I made this movie – I jumped on board this project to create the story and to create the world that you see on screen because I was trying to make the movie that I thought my dad would pay bucks to go and see, that my dad would want to go and sit in the cinema and see, and he never got a chance to see it.
And I felt that, if I gave in at that point – because he at one point said to me, “I’m not going to go into the ground until I see this movie.” He was very sick and he said this to me.
But at that point, I knew he couldn’t hold out, but I thought somewhere, somehow he has to see this movie. And if I don’t finish it – and he would have been saying to me – it sounds like a cliché, but he would have been saying to me, “You have to do it.”
My sister – she won’t like me telling her age, but, you know, was in her late forties and my brother who’s in his early fifties, that night they came home, they slept in my home and they said they were doing it so that I could wake up in the morning and have the force of my father to send me out to work, and they did.
And when I came home that night, they were there and they sent me out to work. I don’t remember how I shot those scenes. I just know I did ’cause they’re there.
And I remember Tom Wilkinson taking my face in his hands and saying, “It feels like you won’t get through this, but trust me, you will. You will get through this.” I thought I was going to die that day, but I got through it.
Tavis: So you had your own family love story. It is surreal, I suspect…
Tavis: To have your own family love story embracing you while you’re filming the same thing with Dido’s family.
Speaking of Tom Wilkinson, I think I’ve only met him once and I’ve always had great respect for his acting chops, but even more so or as much for the choices that he makes for what he will play in. Can I just tell you that he killed it in this film?
Asante: Doesn’t he?
Tavis: Tom Wilkinson – I mean, I’ll come to Gugu in a second. But Tom Wilkinson is amazing.
Asante: Well, you know, this man that he plays is so conflicted. This man is sitting there with one foot kind of firmly in the now of then, you know, in the status quo, in the fear of change, all of that stuff.
But he has this other foot so firmly in being a progressive man, in being a man ahead of his time. And these two parts are conflicting. They’re in conflict all the time.
So he’s this man, he’s the highest judge in the land, he’s got these big cases to preside over, but he’s also, as I say, just a man in the story. He’s just a father in the story. You know, I was demanding all of this stuff for him, but kudos to the man.
You know, I was blessed to be able to get him to do this movie. And for him, what was important was that he was a part of telling this story and supporting Gugu’s talent to rise to the surface, and that was great.
Tavis: For folks who are in the entertainment business, they will remember Gugu from a number of different things.
But I was just thinking as I watched this film how there was a moment where my friend, J.J. Abrams did a TV series that starred her and Boris Kodjoe. And for all the brilliant stuff that J.J. has done, I’m sure he thought it was a great project.
Tavis: It just didn’t get lift-off. I was thinking as I walked out of the theater about how timing, as we know, is everything. She tried the series, it didn’t work, but, Lord, this movie comes along.
Asante: It was waiting for her.
Tavis: Oh, my goodness.
Asante: I really believe that this story, this history, was waiting for her. It was waiting for me. I think it was a formidable collaboration. I enjoyed every minute of it, but I was exhausted. I mean, what keeps you going when your father’s just died?
To answer that question again, it’s the talent of these people that I had to help them complete. You know, I knew that this was – I mean, Gugu, Tom, but my production designer, my cinematographer.
We were filming this on the tiniest budget and their work, their blood, their sweat, Gugu’s work, blood, sweat and tears, had to be seen and to be believed in so many ways. Because, again, she has to be so complex. There’s so much going on in her eyes.
She’s this child of a slave, this child of an aristocrat, this child of a white person, a Black person, this woman of color in an aristocratic world. She has to be so many things and she has to express to us her journey from girl to woman, her journey towards political awakening and her journey of finding self-love.
And she’s got to do it all in the eyes, all in the face, all while there’s nobody else on screen that reflects who she is. It was tough, but she’s smart as well as talented.
Tavis: She pulled it off. I don’t mean to suggest that by this question that everything that a Black filmmaker does has to be socially redemptive.
I see the folk all the time that one of the greatest songs ever written was a song called “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. But I remind people Marvin sang “What’s going on,” but he also sang “Let’s get it on.”
So everything doesn’t have to be socially redemptive. I don’t want to put that pressure on Black filmmakers.
Tavis: But is not lost on me that Steve McQueen brings us “12 Years a Slave,” you bring us “Belle.” You both have that funny accent [laugh].
Asante: My what? My accent [laugh]?
Tavis: I mean, is there something in the water that you all are drinking in the U.K.? I mean, I know you live in Holland now, but what’s happening that these films are coming from the other side of the pond?
Asante: I think we’ve been starved of the opportunity to be able to tell our stories. You know, I know that with “12 Years a Slave,” there was some talk about Steve being British and this being an American story.
But I can honestly tell you in Britain, we just kind of think of ourselves as Black folk and we just think, you know, we don’t have so much of that division of they’re African American and we’re African Brits.
We don’t really feel like that, but we felt from our part the area of the world we were in was starving us of being able to tell our stories. And by our, I mean stories of people of color. And we are finally getting the opportunity.
So I think the first thing we want to do is kind of rush to tell these stories that are about us and the things we feel about, the things that we have emotion about, before we can go off and later tell our comedies and, you know, all the other stuff. We want to get to the stuff that’s gritty and is in our hearts.
You know, I wanted to tell a sweeping love story as much as I wanted to put a female of color front and center and a story that surrounded the part of the world that I live in in terms of the slave trade financing this genteel society, as your introduction so rightly said.
You know, I could never tell that sweeping love story from that period if I wasn’t going to also talk about the economy and how that economy was coming together.
So I think we have been starved and we’re finally getting the chance. So I think you might see more of this from us because, for each one that is out there, it’s opening the door for the next one, I hope. So we’re hungry. We’re hungry to tell our stories.
Tavis: Well, you told this one brilliantly.
Asante: Thank you.
Tavis: I kind of feel for you because I don’t know how you top this [laugh].
Asante: Thank you.
Tavis: You’re still awfully young and I’m glad you’re talented because you got a lot of work to do to do better than what you did here. I mean, I floated out of the studio – out of the movie theater, I should say.
Asante: Thank you. My dad always said, you know, you can’t be complacent. You must never rest on your laurels, and I’m not going to.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s a powerful project. It’s called “Belle.” I don’t often do this, but with all due respect to Siskel & Ebert, two thumbs up. You got to go see this. It’s a powerful film that I think will move you at the deepest level.
If you see this and come out and your heart strings have not been pulled, then check your pulse. The director of this film, her name is Amma Asante. The film is called “Belle.” It’s a name that I think you will remember.
Ms. Asante’s going to be around doing some good work for years to come. Congratulations on all the success that is to come, and I’m honored to have you on this program.
Asante: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Glad to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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