Director Amma Asante Talks New Movie “Belle” & Supporting Black Art
BELLE is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, played by the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral. Raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet the color of her skin prevents her from fully participating in the traditions of her social standing. Left to wonder if she will ever find love, Belle falls for an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on change who, with her help, shapes Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in 18th century England. The film has garnered much praise from critics and moviegoers alike and for good reason. Director Amma Asante was inspired by an 18th Century painting and through research and much labor, was able to bring to life the story of this remarkable, yet conflicted young woman. Heed Magazine had the chance to speak with Amma for what turned out to be a quite interesting conversation on race, responsibility and supporting black art and artists. Check out the exclusive below and be sure to catch BELLE in theaters TODAY!
Amma Asante: Hi!
Mike Sanford: Hi Amma, how are you?
AA: I’m good, how are you doing?
MS: You know, I am doing incredibly well and it’s so good to be speaking with you today!
AA: Thank you so much!
MS: First of all, I don’t want to keep you long, but I have to tell you, I had a chance to see the movie last night and I was deeply moved!
MS: Incredible film, I mean it is a wonderful film and Gugu is just a breath of fresh air and the way that she interpreted Dido’s character was amazing! I love period films like that anyway, so my first question is what inspired you to go deeper and find out about the “black girl” in the painting?
AA: You know, what inspired me happened a year before. I didn’t know that it was going to inspire me to do this, but I had gone to an exhibition in Holland which looked to the history of people of color in art from about the 14th century onward and it was an amazing exhibition! What I discovered was that in the 18th century, we were accessories in the paintings and were there to express the high status of the caucasians that would be in the paintings. So we would be like a pet, a horse, a dog; we would always be painted lower down, very small in the paintings. Always looking up at the white protagonist. Up at them in awe, reaching out toward them which would draw your eyes up to that white person, and when I saw this painting a year later of Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth it came to me in the context of that exhibition that I had been to and that understanding that I had come to.
So I knew it was unique. I knew it was special because there was Dido looking out at us so confident. There was a sparkle in her eyes, she’s staring directly out at the painter which was unheard of. She’s painted slightly higher than Elizabeth in the painting and it is Elizabeth that’s reaching out to her drawing your eyes to her. So, suddenly I saw this painting and at the very least Dido Belle is painted with equal value and if you look very carefully, some art historians argue that she’s actually at higher value than Elizabeth because she’s painted slightly higher in the painting. So it was that and looking at the context and knowing that this was a brave and courageous piece of work that somebody had created. I knew the two women in painting were real and for me it was about going back to the research and digging. You know, there’s a myth out there that there isn’t much information about Dido and the truth is there was no quintessential story about her, no quintessential book but there are all sorts of pieces of information that are out there where if you indulge in a labor of love like I did, you can piece together which will give you her story.
MS: Do you think Dido’s story would have been as interesting if she were not biracial?
AA: She had to be a woman of color. If you look at the painting on its own, and cover up Dido the painting is nothing. It’s like every single painting we’ve seen of that period, it’s of no interest whatsoever. If you take that painting and you cover up Elizabeth, it’s an extraordinary painting. When you see them alongside each other and you measure Dido against Elizabeth it becomes even more extraordinary which is how I used Elizabeth in the movie. Which is to show everything that Dido is and everything that society says that Dido is not. She had to be a woman of color. I think purely being a woman of color raised in high society is what makes her special. You can take away all of the other elements, but just the fact that she raised in high society made her privileged.
You can take away the inheritance, but the fact that she’s a woman of color and raised in high society, I think that’s what makes her unusual. And the fact that she was raised by a man who was so powerful in England who chose not to keep her as a servant which would have been the way to do it back then. The fact that she was taken in by this powerful man who made a choice and said I’m going to raise her and dress her in silk, along with his wife, I’m going to dress her in the finest jewelry, I’m going to educate her, and I choose to love her as though she were mine. And this we know factually. We know from other people’s accounts, he left her in two of his wills and his sister left her in one of there’s as well. So we know that she was loved. That is what makes her so incredible and so unusual.
MS: So, where did you find Gugu?
AA: Her full name is actually Gugu Mbatha, which means our pride.
MS: Oh wow! Was she your first choice? She was so new to me, so when I saw her it was like “wow, she nailed it!”
AA: Well you know, there is such a responsibility when you’re creating and telling a story like this and I had such a responsibility to give Dido a voice and to channel that voice through the right person. On top of that I also had a responsibility to give a young actress of color a great opportunity which would hopefully launch her star. I knew Gugu because she auditioned for another film of mine a couple of years before. She had come in for casting for that and I was blown away by her beauty at that time. She read very well, but she left and her presence stayed with me. And then a couple of years later, I had gotten the story to where I wanted it to be and I had done all of my research, dealt with all of the characters and all of that. And even though I knew Gugu’s out there, we still have to look at every bi-racial girl in the UK that’s an actress and the right age. We have to do it, because it’s a responsibility on my part to make sure the best person gets the job.
Gugu came in a few times, as did some of the other actresses, and read for the part of Belle. What Gugu had was this real innate sense of grace that is so fitting to the period. And what I needed from the actress was something that was quite complex because I needed her to be very familiar to you and yet unfamiliar. I needed her to be both an insider and an outsider, she is the other within. You know she’s the outsider that lives within. I think as filmmakers, story tellers, writers, directors, we all are. We’re both the observer and the person who experiences and I wanted her to be those things. So, what I was looking for was something that was complex and at that time it wasn’t as easy as it is for me now to articulate and I didn’t want to scare the person.
So, she comes in and she has all of this and she’s smart. She gets the story I want to tell, she understands why I want to tell it in this way. This is a big story. It’s a romantic love story, a paternal love story, but it’s most importantly a journey that we take this young girl on from girl to woman with a political awakening. A journey where she has to take all of the contradictions that society says she is and get to a place where she’s not only okay with all of them but happy with who she is. It’s a journey that I think we all have, we all have ways in which society says we are a contradiction. I think as young women today, what’s really contemporary about this story is often we can find who society tells us we are is a burden. Society can make us feel like who are is a burden and we have to come to place where we say it’s not about society defining who we are it’s about me telling you who I am. And that’s what I wanted to do through Dido, I wanted the position that I saw her in the painting to be her landing place. That’s the woman she grows into. And that’s a journey…
MS: And that’s a phenomenal journey! You just explained it so eloquently. I’m moved all over again! [laughs] Why should the world go see Belle?
AA: Well, there’s two big reasons. Which is it’s an important part of all of our history. It doesn’t just belong to Britain or to people of color. It’s about all of us. This is a story that will entertain you but you will learn from it. What I knew coming into my research was that you can make money out of buying human beings and selling them, what I didn’t know was that you can make money out of killing them. The second reason is because as audiences we are starved of stories being told through a vast variety of lenses. There are only so many stories out there, it’s the lenses through which they are told that bring us that variety. If we want to see a variety of stories told through a variety of storytellers lenses, then we have to support those movies when they’re out there. Because if you don’t you will always be stuck with the same old, same old, which are stories told by those who have traditionally been given the power to tell those stories. And as people of color if we want to be able to define ourselves in the stories, and the way we’re presented in cinema then we have to support black film makers and black artists when they’re presented in these movies. And that’s the reason why.
MS: That’s very true.
AA: So, there’s the political reason, but there’s also the reasons that surround art and entertainment and being informed and feeling better about yourself. I hope you leave the theater feeling better about who you are and who you might have been had you been born during that period because what this story tells you is this: You were not limited, you didn’t have to only be a slave. You could have been more, you might have been more.
MS: Wow, what a great segue to wrapping this all up! Well, Ms. Amma Asante this chat really enhanced my perception of the movie, especially hearing your journey. Thank you for bringing Dido’s story to the theaters.
AA: I do appreciate that, thank you so much! Good talk, I enjoyed it!
“BELLE” opens nationwide TODAY! Check out the trailer and head to a theater near you this Memorial Day Weekend!
Educators across America have the opportunity to get a FREE copy of “BELLE” on DVD when you take your students on a field trip to see “BELLE”! See Below for more details!
All Photos © 2014 Fox Searchlight Pictures