Writer/director Amma Asante talks about her new film, "Belle," a fact-based, historical drama starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw about the daughter of an African slave and a British ship captain who was raised in England as an aristocrat.
Kam Williams: Hi Amma. I'm honored to have this opportunity.
Amma Asante: Thank you very much, Kam. It's my pleasure.
KW: I told my readers I'd be speaking with you, so I'll be mixing in their questions with some of my own.
AA: OK, cool.
KW: Children's book author Irene Smalls asks: "Where did you find this story and what motivated you to turn it into a movie?"
AA: Well, the story comes from the painting that emerges at the end of the film.
( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dido_Elizabeth_Belle.jpg ) My producer (Damian Jones) sent me a postcard of the picture. I knew immediately that this was an unusual painting and that there was something very special about it, because I had recently been to an art exhibition in Amsterdam that was looking at the history of people of color in art from the 14th Century.
What I learned from the show, without knowing that this postcard was ever going to fall into my lap, was that people of color were generally used as accessories in paintings. We were there to express the status of the main subject of the canvas. We'd always be positioned lower than and looking up in awe at the protagonist and never looking out at the painter. But in this postcard, everything was the opposite. There was Dido Belle staring out at the painter, positioned slightly higher than Elizabeth (her white cousin) whose arm was reaching out to Dido, and thereby drawing your eyes towards Dido. So, I saw an opportunity to create a story that would be a combination of race, politics, art and history. And it went from there, with lots and lots of research.
KW: I don't agree with the assumption of Irene's next question: "Why did you focus on the love story instead of the historical significance?"
AA: I disagree with her as well. I think the historical significance was to bring the two people in the love story together. What I tried to do was to use the legal case of the Zong Massacre and the painting itself as tools to explore Dido Elizabeth Belle's journey. They feed into her being able to find her voice and into her coming to a place where she experiences self-love. So, I would say that that's at the center of the film, the love story between Dido and herself. Everything else kind of sits around that idea of a young woman coming into her own.
KW: Irene was also wondering whether there might be a sequel in the works.
AA: (Chuckles) No, there isn't. I feel like this painting fell into my lap because this story needed to be told by me. I believe I was blessed to have the opportunity to be able put this story together and bring it to the screen. But I feel that my role is completed now, and I'd have to leave a sequel to someone else.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier says: "I was very impressed that this elaborate costume drama/historical biopic was just your second feature film."
AA: Thank you, Patricia. I knew that I wanted my second film to be big and lush and important, and that I wanted it to make a statement. That's why it took those eight years to get from my first to my second feature. I always knew I had it in me. I just had to persuade the financiers as well. I think feature films are about the confidence you have in bringing your vision to fruition.
KW: When I interviewed Gugu, she gave me the idea that you definitely had a vision of what you were trying to achieve, and also that she felt very comfortable in your hands.
AA: Oh, that's nice of her to say. It was important to me for the cast to feel safe in my hands. I was very open to collaborating with them, but they also knew that I had a very, very strong vision for this story that I wanted to tell.
KW: She goes on to say: "Given that I speak French, I am curious to know where the French last name of Dido Elizabeth Belle comes from?"
AA: Dido was born to a West African woman who was sold into slavery. I named the film "Belle" to honor both Dido and her mother, Maria. But we don't know how she came to have the surname Belle. ...
KW: Patricia also asks: "Why do you think that the story of Belle remained unknown, despite the painting of her?
AA: That's a very interesting question. I'm 44 years old now, and I grew up not knowing anything about it. But young girls and boys in England today are being taught about Dido Belle. You can read about elements of her life in various books that have been published. What there wasn't until our film was the quintessential story that pieced together Dido's life. Since the film does contain some elements of fiction, Damian and I decided to commission Paula Byrne to write an absolutely historically-accurate version of Dido's life in book form, also called "Belle." http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0062310771/ref=nosim/thslfofire-20
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: "How do you feel about the compliment that "The movie Belle has a woman's touch and is a woman's movie."
AA: I like that compliment! And I thank whoever gave it. What I wanted to do was put a woman of color, front and center, in this movie combining a lot of themes that were relevant to both men and women. I actively wanted her to carry the weight of this movie because I'm a woman. And I actively wanted to explore many of the issues that affected her as a woman of color. That was very important to me. And although these issues affect some women of color, I don't think they're only of interest to women of color. They're of universal interest. In addition, I'm a girl, and I celebrate being a girl, and it was really important to me to celebrate the beauty that I could create in a movie like this, aesthetically, in terms of the costumes and the production design. I wanted something big and lush and beautiful and unashamedly feminine. So, I take that as a big compliment, Harriet. ...
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: "What is your earliest childhood memory?"
AA: My earliest childhood memory I actually injected into Belle. It's of me sitting on my dad's lap. I remember him saying to me, "You don't understand what I'm saying to you right now, but know that you are loved." That's where that line comes from in the movie where Dido's biological father leans down to say the same thing to her. Belle is also dedicated to my father who died unexpectedly during the making of the film. It's a movie that means a lot to me because I made it not only for little girls around the world who grew up to see themselves reflected in a film like this, but also for my father because it was the kind of picture he would love, even if his daughter had nothing to do with it. So, my earliest memory of him is in the movie.
KW: My condolences, Amma. Is it true that your father was an accountant, your mother was a housekeeper, and that they also opened a deli?
AA: Yes, that's correct. After my parents arrived in England, it took them a decade to get a foothold. It meant that they had to work non-stop. My mother would do two cleaning jobs in the morning before opening her deli, and then do two more cleaning jobs in the evening. Her whole day, from 4:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. was spent working, as was my father's, between the office and the shop.
KW: You became a TV star as a teenager. How did you avoid the problems that destroy the lives of so many child actors?
AA: Again, I would honestly have to credit my parents, Kwame and Comfort, who ensured that my feet as well as my siblings stayed firmly on the ground. So, I was very well-rooted. I also learned the value of money from a very young age. I thank God for that. ...
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
AA: I see the woman I knew I wanted to be as a child. When I was a young girl, I had a vision of the woman I wanted to be. And I often reached out to women of color in America for inspiration. My mother would regularly buy Essence and Ebony. I would look at those magazines filled with images of professional, intelligent women of color who knew who they were, who enjoyed who they were, and who were surrounded by other people who enjoyed who they were. When I look in the mirror, I'm really glad that that's what I see today, but it took awhile to get here. ...
(To see a trailer for Belle, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTz5VjBscGk.)