British Director Amma Asante Talks ‘Belle’ & Diversity in Film
By Jessica Herndon
LOS ANGELES — British director Amma Asante knows how hard it is to get a costume drama off the ground — especially when it stars a black female newcomer and is directed by a black female with only one previous film to her credit.
But for the 18th century-set “Belle,” Asante fought for diversity and the feminine eye in front of and behind the camera. “We need a variety of lenses in which to tell these stories,” she says. “Being in a strong position where you can make the decisions … I have a responsibility to open up those opportunities.”
Based on real events, “Belle” tells the story of a mixed-race woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised in British aristocracy at a time when such a thing was unheard of. It not only stars English newbie Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role, but it was penned by black British writer Misan Sagay (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”), scored by Rachel Portman (“Chocolat”), the costumes were conceived by a woman and it was edited by women.
Asante points out that for women and minorities, landing quality jobs is difficult in the U.K., just as it is in America, since most producers envision a director that “doesn’t come in my shape or color,” she says. Having only one film under her belt didn’t help her cause, either. (Her directorial debut, the BAFTA award-winning “A Way of Life,” was released in 2004.)
“But I’ve at least arrived at an age group that appears appropriate,” laughs the 44-year-old in a recent phone interview from New York. Now, Asante is determined to get other ladies in the door. “My stories are about women so why not have women help make them?”
“Belle” weaves in the historical 1781 Zong Massacre, in which 142 enslaved Africans were drowned in the Caribbean by the crew of the British slave ship Zong. The slave owners made an insurance claim for the loss of the slaves, which was challenged by the insurers and wound up in the British courts.
The chief justice ultimately deciding the case was Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), Dido’s great uncle with whom she lived after her Royal Navy admiral father sets sail for the Indies. Mansfield ruled in favor of the insurers and his verdict led to the end of the British slave trade in 1807.
In the film, Dido influences Lord Mansfield’s decision