British filmmaker and writer Amma Asante thinks visual storytelling can promote sisterhood and create strong communities that extend beyond the film industry.
The director of Ghanaian descent’s sophomore effort, Belle, chronicles the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an assertive biracial love child of a West Indian slave and a British naval captain raised in 18th century Great Britain by her aristocratic great uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson).
Though Belle is raised in a life of privilege and acquires her deceased father’s wealth, she experiences devastating racial discrimination because of the color of her skin. Simultaneously, the young woman falls in love with a strong-willed, morally-savvy white attorney (Sam Reid) to the chagrin of her uncle.
Directing Belle allowed Asante, whose feature debut, 2004’s A Way of Life, earned the filmmaker a BAFTA award, another opportunity to fully articulate and execute her cinematic vision. The detail-oriented movie maker knew she would be up for the challenge after seeing a painting featuring Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray.
Wanting to refrain from recreating stiff female archetypes captured in still art, Asante wanted to breathe life into the work’s subjects. Post-screening of this year’s Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) in Atlanta, the self-described anal and obsessive director shared insights on how she developed her aesthetically superb film.
Asante created a color wheel, or what she calls “a mood board” to help develop the look and feel of the film. On top of conducting vigorous research, another goal was to develop a crew she could work with on a recurring basis.
“Before you start writing, watch a lot of authentic stuff from that period,” says Asante, who took three-and-a-half years to develop Belle. “Don’t cut any corners. Read works from that period, and submerge yourself completely in that period.”
Mbatha-Raw and Asante fed off each other’s energy and dedication during production. The ladies’ chemistry resulted in each delivering memorable performances.
An upbeat Asante makes countless references to how impressed she is with Mbatha-Raw’s delivery and body language. She sits next to the multi-talented Royal Academy of Dramatic Art alumnae in one of the Georgian Terrace’s conference rooms the morning following the film festival.
The women share a few laughs but unanimously agree that trusting each other set the tone for their synergy on set.
“There’s nothing better than working with a natural actress who knows the meaning of nuance,” says Asante with her legs crossed. “I wanted to facilitate great performances. I’m about putting smart women on-screen. If I was honest with her about what I wanted and needed from her, she would take it a step further.”
The filmmaker adds, “We both felt a responsibility. There is something beautiful about teaming up with another woman of color to raise the profile of a historic woman of color. I don’t write for lines; I write for body language and what goes in between the lines.”
Mbatha-Raw prepared to portray her virtuoso character by taking etiquette workshops, piano lessons and listening to compositions by Handel. Insisting her upbringing was conflict-free, the offspring of a black South African father and white British mother listened to a rotating playlist that put her in an element to take on her debut starring role.
Belle’s leading actress, an admitted chatterbox whose passion for the arts is rooted in dance, shared playlists with Asante. Taking sips of coffee between remarks, Mbatha-Raw pinpoints that Asante’s knack for clarity, in addition to the actress avidly reading Jane Austen novels, inspired her to deliver an exceptional performance.
“Having Amma trust me with this huge labor of love was massive,” says Mbatha-Raw. “Unless you have strong leadership, the story can get diluted by everyone else’s opinions. You have to be comfortable in your own shoes and have confidence in yourself.”
There were moments throughout Belle’s production when Asante’s ideas were met with resistance by her peers and colleagues. The film was originally set to be a made-for-TV film to air on HBO, but that didn’t work out.
It was suggested to Asante to edit out the film’s memorable mirror scene from the final cut. She reveals that defending her vision became hard at times.
The former child actress-turned-owner of a production company, Tantrum Films, kept in mind that being assertive and having stamina are essential components for black female movie directors. Thus, Asante stayed in contact with Belle’s cast, crew, studio executives and investors.
The transparent director shared very candid moments about herself with Mbatha-Raw particularly.
“Communicate why you’re arguing for that point,” says Asante as she clenches her fists and periodically looks towards the ceiling. “You have to be diplomatic and political. Pick your fights and battles, but protect the stuff that matters.”
Mbatha-Raw, whose next feature, The Whole Truth, which stars Keanu Reeves, interjects that Asante’s revelations fueled her to breathe humanity into her character.
“[Amma] taught me to always remember to bring heart to the story,” says Mbatha-Raw. “It’s important to stand your ground, but you don’t have to become a tyrant about it.”
“Film is a platform for inspiration,” adds Mbatha-Raw. “Hopefully, it raises conversation about being authentic to yourself. I feel a responsibility to find work that evolves our culture and provides new perspectives that inspire us all.”
There were still recurring concerns from studio executives regarding how to properly portray Belle. Asante remained mindful of the ongoing debates, keeping her integrity at the forefront.
“There are questions coming from every corner all of the time,” says Asante still with her legs crossed.
“Everyone needs their answers to execute what it is you’ve asked them to do. Give everyone time to deliver, but protect yourself. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. When you’re a woman, it’s very easy to be labeled a diva. Define yourself, and that comes down to every level of what you do.”
Asante persevered until Belle was complete. The film went on to become one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films.
The confident filmmaker is currently directing her next film, Unforgettable, for Warner Bros. What Asante finds most rewarding about directing Belle is she’s excelling in her craft.
She credits and applauds members of her team for their hard work. Remarkably chatty whenever she expresses how proud she is to have made Belle, Asante is at a loss for words about the film’s success.
“Some things you learn you can’t articulate because they’re beyond words, which is what we do in movies,” says Asante. “We go beyond words.”
“I wanted to change the narrative of black girls. Movie making is a place where the variety of stories and ideas are allowed to be placed on the table. It’s only through variety that creativity can grow.”
Never one to fully alter her agenda, Asante wants Belle’s audiences to leave with their own points of view.
“Film should be a talking point,” she says. “You want people walking away discussing what you put out there because you may not have all of the answers.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.