“Belle director Amma Asante: ‘A generation growing up will never see colour as an issue’”

THE EXPRESS Jun 15, 2014

ACTRESS turned director Amma Asante tells film critic Henry Fitzherbert about her film Belle and the story of an 18th century mixed-race girl living with aristocrats.

There is a moment in Belle, the powerful British period drama currently wooing America, where Miranda Richardson’s snooty old cow claps eyes on the mixed-race protagonist for the first time, Dido Elizabeth Belle, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. “I didn’t expect her to be so black,” she says, in a line that came straight from director Amma Asante’s own experience.

The 44-year-old writer-director, British-born of Ghanaian parents, heard those very words uttered by her future mother-in-law shortly before marrying her first husband: “I was 23 at the time and I heard her speaking to my then husband-to-be the first time she met me. She said: ‘She’s quite pretty but she’s very black. I didn’t expect her to be so black’.”

It might be tempting to assume Asante included the line as a kind of private revenge but that would be to misunderstand the generous spirited filmmaker who hopes her film will inspire “love and courage”.

Those are the words that sprang to mind when Asante first set eyes on the portrait that inspired the film: Dido in playful pose with Lady Elizabeth Murray, the great niece of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield.

Both were raised by Mansfield at his home, Kenwood House in London’s Hampstead, and treated almost as equals despite Dido’s heritage as the daughter of British admiral John Lindsay (Mansfield’s nephew) and an African slave.

The film’s writer Misan Sagay saw the portrait and wrote a screenplay imagining the girls’ friendship and romantic lives (Dido married but little else is known). The image also captivated the south London-raised Asante, a former regular on TV’s Grange Hill, who was looking to follow up her acclaimed 2004 debut A Way Of Life (about white teenagers who persecute a Muslim neighbour).

“In that one unusual pairing I saw many things but above all I saw love and courage,” she says. The love is in Elizabeth’s evident fondness for Dido (“Unheard of between a white and black woman”), the courage is in the picture’s very existence.

“The question that came to me was, ‘Who commissioned this painting? Who had the courage?’. In a way I think that person created a vision of the world they wanted to see, two people of colour living as equals.”

That person was Lord Mansfield, played brilliantly by Tom Wilkinson (“I give him a big hug every time I see him”). His character became central to the themes Asante sought to explore: “I knew that I wanted on the surface to create a traditional love story but then underneath it I wanted to create all these layers of gender, race, class, status, identity and ownership.”

Many of these themes emerge in a legal case. Mansfield must determine whether the owners of the slave ship Zong are entitled to insurance after their human cargo, weakened by disease, are thrown overboard.

“It’s not well known that you could make money by killing slaves,” says Asante, keen to expose the brutal trade “financing that genteel world”.

The film shows Mansfield reaching his enlightened judgement under the influence of his mixed-race adopted daughter. Wishful thinking or do the facts bear this up? “In my heart of hearts I don’t think we’ll ever know,” she admits. “The question I try and ask during the film is, “Was the man we see at the end of the film, who makes the judgement, always like that or did he become that man through having a personal relationship with Dido? To be honest I think it’s a bit of both.”

It is clear the film is deeply personal to Asante, not least in the character of Mansfield, a self-made man with conflicts and demons who reminded her of her own father. Kwane Asante came to Britain with nothing and the family lived in a room without electricity until he qualified as an accountant. He was loving but strict.

“I was obsessed with Lord Mansfield because I saw my father in him,” says Asante. “On the one hand Mansfield was a man of rules and very much of his time but he was also ahead of his time. He had a foot firmly entrenched in progression and these two parts of him were in conflict. My dad was similar and I think that’s how I have emerged, of a man very much like that.”

She credits her father with love, honesty and tenacity, all qualities she needed to draw on when making the film but perhaps no more so than when her father died during the making of it. “I had to film eight hours after my dad died and it was a huge scene with Lord Mansfield and hundred of extras. My world was moving beneath me but I felt I had to carry on because, as clichéd as it is, that’s what my dad would have wanted me to do.”

The success of Belle and its high-powered champions, including Oprah Winfrey who threw a party for the film’s launch in America, means that Asante’s world will continue to move.

She is preparing to shoot her first studio film, a thriller for Warner Brothers, Unforgettable, produced by veteran Denise Di Novi. “As an indie filmmaker it’s 100 per cent about your vision. Hollywood filmmaking is more storytelling by committee,” says Asante.

After that she will be back in Europe to film Where Hands Touch, in the Hague where she lives with second husband, Soren Pedersen.

As a black female film director Asante enjoys a position almost as unusual as Dido did herself. Like her heroine, her example is inspiring. “In America I had white mothers bringing their white daughters up to me and saying: ‘My daughter says that when she grows up she wants to be just like you’. In the end there is a generation that is growing up that is never going to see colour as an issue.”