Director Amma Asante

The award-winning director discusses her recent biopic A United Kingdom.

Amma Asante is a writer/director who debuted her feature film, Belle, at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 and received a strong reception and rave reviews. She was also honored with Variety’s Top Ten Directors to Watch in 2014. Asante's 2004 feature film, A Way of Life, was her directorial debut and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival as well. The film won Asante 17 international awards for her writing and directing including The BFI London Film Festival's inaugural Alfred Dunhill UK Film Talent Award, created to recognize the achievements of a new or emerging British writer/director who has shown great skill and imagination in bringing originality and verve to filmmaking.

Asante made an unusual entry into filmmaking. As a child, she trained as a student in dance and drama. She began a television career as a child actress, appearing as a regular in the popular British school drama Grange Hill. In her late teens, Asante left the world of acting and eventually made the move to screenwriting with a development deal from Chrysalis. Two series of the urban drama Brothers and Sisters followed, which Asante wrote and produced for her Production Company and BBC2. Asante's current project A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, depicts the touching yet powerful true story of Seretse Khama and his battle between his love and his duty as Prince of Botswana.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: So pleased to welcome Amma Asante back to this program. Her latest project is called “A United Kingdom”. It is based on the true story of the interracial marriage of an African prince to an English woman who became his queen, and the real-life ramifications of their marriage on the political landscape of post-colonial Africa. Before our conversation starts, first a clip from “A United Kingdom”.

[Clip]

Tavis: So I whispered to Amma during the clip, I said, “His uncle wasn’t no joke.” And you said to me he reminded you of your father.

Amma Asante: Yeah.

Tavis: In what way?

Asante: Well, you know, he gave me that look all the time, first of all [laugh]. But I would say there was just this sense that — David and I were talking about this the other day, David Oyelowo who plays Seretse Khama, that there are certain African family members, male family members, that you just don’t play with.

And I wanted that feeling with this uncle. I wanted him to be a man who, when you saw him and you saw him walking towards you, you knew this was not going to be easy. You know, that’s the bubble.

Tavis: There are two parts to this story. There are at least two parts to this story. I’m curious from a director’s point of view how you, pardon the pun, married these two things together, which is the story of the political ramifications that this marriage had and the love affair.

So there’s a love story here and there’s some serious political ramifications not just for this country, for the continent as well. How did you weave those things?

Asante: Well, it was interesting. When I came on to the project, there had been lots of conversation about how this story should be told in the balance of those two things. I think that everybody had come down on the side of, well, it should really be mainly a love story and the political stuff should really just form a backdrop.

I felt really differently about it mainly because of the important period of time where the story was taking place, which is when India had formed its independence and there was a feeling in Africa that this could be a possibility for many of the African countries too.

So we needed to have the politics. We needed to have the African politics. We also needed in order to understand the power of this couple’s love to understand exactly what that love was up against. If you didn’t understand what they were up against, you didn’t understand the strength of that love.

So for me, it was important to know what the stakes were in terms of Britain being just post-war, being poor, needing cheap gold from South Africa to underline its economy, uranium because of a cold war that was unfolding and Britain’s atomic bomb program.

And the Prime Minister of the U.K. at that time had been given a mandate to take care of Britain’s future and then, on the other hand, you had this couple who fell in love at a very uncomfortable time.

So my view was that, as long as we saw everything through the prism of the love story, as long as we saw all of the politics always through the prism of the love story, then we would be okay. But you needed one to emphasize the other.

Tavis: I’ve said many times on this program and it always gets me in trouble, so here I get in trouble again. I’ve been to 16 or 17 African countries, but the Ghanaian people are the nicest folk on the planet [laugh].

Asante: I agree with you. I’m not about to disagree with that.

Tavis: Yeah. I figured being a Ghanaian by birth, you might agree with that. But I love the Ghanaian people. I’ve been in the country so many times. I wondered, given my love and respect for Kwame Nkrumah and Ghana being the first country basically to get its own independence, how on a personal level that increased your willingness or interest or the way you saw this story about this particular country?

Asante: It was so important to me. When I came to the project, Seretse had no inner story, no inner journey towards his decisions to give up his kingship and become a leader in a different way if his country would vote for him and to hopefully take his country into independence.

And the reason why it was so important for me is because my dad stood in Independence Square in 1957 and he saw the Gold Coast become Ghana and he waved that flag. I was raised able to recite some of the speeches of Kwame Nkrumah.

My father was an a Pan-Africanist and he believed in the United States of Africa. So although he wasn’t a politician, he was a political man and I understood on a very personal level what independence meant to my parents who were raised in a colony and saw it become independent.

I understood what it meant to them for their country to become the master of its own fate, hence you know that is injected into the movie.

You know, the first time we hear that phrase in the story, it’s in a small moment, a personal moment between the couple. And the final time you hear it in the movie, it’s at the end and it has a bigger world meaning to it. And it was important for me to be able to tell one African country’s story, journey, towards independence because I am that daughter of Africa.

Tavis: David Oyelowo, your star, was here not too long ago.

Asante: Yeah.

Tavis: And we had a bit of a conversation about this. I want to carry over, if I can, to you because I want to get your take on this.

Asante: Sure.

Tavis: Which is whether or not something has changed or is changing amongst moviegoers where we are now more at peace seeing this kind of interracial love onscreen. There are a number of movies out around this season that have — I think of “Loving” and other stories.

And, again, you guys are making movies. You don’t know what’s coming out when. You’re doing your projects, but it seems to me that there is this — I don’t want to overstate it, but there is this openness, I hope, that we see. You tell me. Am I right? Am I wrong about…

Asante: I think we’re in a better place than we have been, but we’re not there yet.

Tavis: Okay, okay.

Asante: I’m not sure what David said, but certainly from my point of view, I don’t think we’re there yet. I mean, in my world, the relevance of an interracial story in terms of filmmaking is only for the sake of being able to sometimes show characters of color that are isolated, have to find a way of asserting their identity in a world where they don’t see the identity reflected back at them.

That often happens in European stories where there’s a person of color and, in those times, yeah, there is an interracial element to a relationship they might have. It’s difficult. We’re getting to a better place, but we’re not there yet. I don’t think everybody’s completely comfortable and it comes from all sides.

Tavis: Who’s more progressive on this question? The U.K. or the U.S.?

Asante: Probably the U.K. Probably the U.K. And I think that has everything to do with the history of how African people came to each of the continents really. And to a certain extent, it matters that people of color in large part came to the U.K. in recent history because they wanted to as opposed to being taken. And I think that makes a huge difference.

Tavis: I loved “Belle”, as you know. I love, love — one of my favorite movies ever now. Loved “Belle”.

Asante: Thank you.

Tavis: Since the theme of race is present clearly in both films, two different pieces, both beautifully done by you, but since race is present in the story line of both pieces, what did you learn to the extent you did? What did you learn from the journey of “Belle” that helped you on “A United Kingdom”?

Asante: Well, I learned to be even more subversive [laugh].

Tavis: I love that, I love that.

Asante: In the way that I tell my story. You know, on the one hand, you get a bit of a love story in “Belle”, but I hope the main thing that you walk away with, the main love story that you walk away with, is a woman’s love for herself, a woman learning to love herself and understanding her own value and the importance of that value.

And I learned to do that in, hopefully, subtle ways that engage a filmic audience. Here, the love story is so important in the United Kingdom. It’s the driving force of the narrative in many ways.

But what I hope you walk away with big time is an understanding that countries in Africa were functioning before they became colonies. They had a sense of politics. Democracy was not something that was introduced from outside. Democracy existed. It’s shown very clearly in “A United Kingdom” that our traditions have always been important to us and we hold onto them for really important reasons.

So I hope that there is a real understanding, a better understanding, for people who haven’t been to Africa, don’t know very much about Africa, don’t know very much about people of color who have resided or have emerged from Africa, that Africa has a relevance to it that we don’t often get to see onscreen.

Tavis: Why, where, when, how did you develop this courage to take these risks in your storytelling? Because I could think of any number of other routes you could have taken as a filmmaker.

Asante: Yeah, sure.

Tavis: But you’ve chosen to tell stories that have not just in the story itself, but to tell the story means that you have to take some risk. Why take the risk?

Asante: You know, I’m a broke filmmaker. I don’t make any money out of this, but I tell the stories that are important to me and it’s usually those elements that I’m being subversive about that are important to me. I think we all have to have a purpose in life. That’s what keeps us going.

And my purpose in life is to connect with my fellow human beings on issues that matter, on anything that allows us to connect over a common humanity.

And we talk about this a lot, you know, on the films I work on how being culturally specific is really important, but understanding that universal humanity is supposed to connect us all really matters to me. And I have no idea how I came to be born like this, but I know I was born this way and I’m compelled to tell these stories because I think there is a greater good attached to them.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad you were born that way.

Asante: Thank you.

Tavis: And I’m glad you’re doing what you do. You do it so beautifully.

Asante: Thank you.

Tavis: “A United Kingdom” is a powerful story. It’s a beautiful film. I promise you that you will not be disappointed, and Miss Asante has acquitted herself once again with a fine directing job. So thank you for coming to see us, and thank you for the film.

Asante: Thank you.

Tavis: I’ll see you soon.

Asante: Good to see you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: February 21, 2017 at 5:03 pm