Amma Asante, the 44-year-old English director of “Belle” has created a luscious period drama that combines Jane Austen sensibilities with issues of social injustice and slavery in 18th-Century England.
The movie stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a breakout performance as Belle. Sam Reid, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, Matthew Good, Emily Watson, Tom Felton and Sarah Gadon round out the cast.
The inspiration for the film came from an 18th Century portrait by an unknown artist of two women, one black and one white. They stand next to each other with the black woman slightly higher up in the portrait. She is Dido Elizabeth Belle, and she wears a loose, silk dress and an exotic headdress. The blonde is Lady Elizabeth Murray and she has her hand reached out to Dido. Dido is the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, and she has a twinkle in her eye and impishly points a finger to her chin. She is the focus of the portrait and so beautiful and alive you cannot take your eyes off her. In real life the women were half cousins, both raised by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, whose court rulings influenced the English abolition of slavery.
There was some controversy surrounding who should be given screenwriting credit for “Belle.” The Writers Guild of America gave authorship to Misan Sagay, a British filmmaker of African nationality.
Last weekend at a midtown Manhattan hotel, Amma Asante, along with the screenwriter and actors Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Reid and Miranda Richardson, attended a junket to promote the Fox Searchlight film, which opens May 2.
Here are highlights of the interview with the director.
Talk about the many challenges you face in directing a movie that’s a period piece as opposed to a movie set in contemporary times. They must be so much more difficult.
And they take longer as well. I mean so although we had a few sets we shot in a lot of real homes, a lot of real homes in the U.K, Georgian homes. But a lot of these homes, although they’re still Georgian, they’ve been upgraded. They’ve been updated, so you see we were restricted sometimes in the angles you can shoot at. You know you can’t fix everything in CGI, and I’m a control freak and the heads of departments that I picked, were all control freaks. I did that deliberately, so my production designer, who’s just the best, Simon Bowles, was a huge control freak who just would not allow anything in sight that wasn’t remotely period. And I’m not talking about things like plugs that we know we’ve got to take out, but if the window wasn’t exactly right, if the curtain wouldn’t have been draped in the right way, all of those things. It meant that redressing quite often would take more time. Every time we would be doing a new set up suddenly we might see something that we hadn’t seen in the recce that might have to be fixed. That would take more time.
And clothing! I mean just changing, changes could take up to an hour, so the way that we had to schedule the day was we had to try to have as few changes as we could during the day because we were shooting in the fall and so in England we lose light at 4 o’clock so that’s losing your light quite early in the day if you’ve got changes that are one hour long that’s also taking up a lot of your day. You’ve got the same time to shoot as a normal movie in that budget, so I mean it was challenging and what you want to get is, I want to get the great performances. I also want to shoot as much story as I’m supposed to in that day because if you get behind that’s time you can’t get back, so it was tough. The schedule was tough. Period drama makes it slower and you have to be more meticulous I think and you have to be considerate of the ladies who are in these dresses for ten hours a day who are tired from having their backs folded into these dresses and being restricted and have to eat with these dresses on. You know, they wouldn’t take them off because how long it took to put them back on again.
Did you try any of those outfits on yourself, especially the corsets?
During the development period my dream was that I would do a day going on set wearing one of those dresses. One day I saw the girls being unstrapped out of those dresses. I saw the way that their backs were folded into those dresses and I just said, it ain’t happening.
Feminist is me today. I’m all about being comfortable and all about keeping my intestines where they’re meant to be. Not up there. (She pointed up.)
How did you first hear about Bell and the whole story?
(Damian Jones, the producer of “Belle,” sent Amma Asante a picture postcard that showed the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of 18th Century Royal Navy Admiral John Lindsay, with her half cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon).
It fell in my lap. It came in the context of me having gone to a wonderful exhibition in an art gallery in Amsterdam a year before (Jones sent her the postcard), in which the history of black people in art was being traced for fourteen centuries onward. When my husband came home and said, ‘This is where I’m taking you to Saturday darling,’ I was like, this is not what I want to do on my Saturday. I don’t want to spend four hours kind of walking around an art gallery. But I got in there and it was the most fascinating exhibition I’ve ever been to.
It charted us from people of color being almost like a pet in the background, lower in the picture, looking up at the protagonist, and never looking out at the painter and literally right through to being the main muse.
So basically when this painting fell into my lap I had a context for it. I could see how different it was. Why Dido was treated with value in the painting. Why it was different. She was looking out at the painter. Elizabeth is touching her, drawing your eye to Dido rather that it being the other way around as it normally was in those 18th Century paintings. She’s actually a little higher in the painting than Elizabeth so rather than worrying about whether she’s carrying fruit like some people do, or she has a turban on her head and has she been exoticized? I was able to put it in an art history context and know this was different, so from there it was about research. I wanted to know who she was, why she was there, why was she treated of value and who had commissioned the painting? Who was the person who was brave enough to go against the tide of tradition at that time and commission this paining and immortalize her so we can be talking about her today? It was finding out what was true, what was going to have to be fictionalized, how these characters were going to be put together and created? What was the focus of the story that was going to be told? It really went from there.
After research, including discovering Lord Mansfield left her an inheritance, as well as did his sister, the director discovered, she said, that, “(Dido) she is not the tragic mulatto. She’s not Cinderella. She’s not coming into a household where she’s treated like dirt and then has to raise herself up from that. She’s coming into a household where they love her but they’re finding their way. For me, Amma, I wanted to make a movie that was about conditioning versus instinct and how we manage the two. When one doesn’t lend itself to morality, how do we make the choice and how we are we brave enough to either go against our conditioning, and how do we make the choice that we’re going to go with our instinct and do what may be right?
That’s not just for Lord Mansfield. That’s for Dido as well because she’s been raised to think to a certain point that she’s going to have to marry a man who’s at least equal to her status or above it. Love does not come into it. The love marriage was not relevant at that time. It was all about status, that’s why traditionally we take the last name of our husbands. He owns us once he would marry us and so her conditioning has to be overridden so that her instinct takes place and she says I’m going to marry for love, I’m going to marry someone who loves me because of me, not in spite of me, who loves the child of a slave and loves the child of an aristocrat. Who loves the child who is black and the child who is white together.
My husband he has to love my mother. He had to love my dad. My husband is white and Danish and he had to fall into my world and fit into my world as much as I had to fit into his. You can’t love me if you don’t love where I come from, who I am, what I’m about, what informs who I am and John finally gets that. For me I wanted this character to be somebody who’s kind of waving a flag for people who are marginalized but he’s never walked in their shoes. He’s judgmental of her in the beginning but he has no idea what it’s like to be a black woman in an aristocratic society in that time.
His journey is to learn through her. You can’t judge people in that way. You also have stuff to learn and he learns form her in the same way that she learns from him and together they learn to be stronger people through the process I think. For me it was the love story that I wanted to really punch because again through the history and the research I found out that all three of their children – they went on to have a third one in the end – were baptized at the church they were married in and I just found that so romantic. I just found that so completely, it had to be a story where the love story really punched, really came through.
Belle had a personality and sensibility that makes her seem modern.
She’s of an identity that’s never going to go away. She asks who defines us? Who do we allow to define us, society or ourselves? Who labels us? Who tells us who we are and what’s we’re going to be never going to go away?
We as individuals are always going to have to fight to empower ourselves and come to that age and that point in our lives where we say, no, you don’t define me. You can’t define me as being angry black woman, or the weak woman or the woman who can’t direct because it’s a man’s world or the woman who can’t run, you know, an organization or a top business. I’ll define what I should be allowed to do, what’s capable, where my feelings should be, if I can break through that ceiling or not… How we label ourselves versus how society labels us? How do we make our choices in life? These questions of identity are never going to go away.
I’m doing a Warner Brothers movie next called “Unforgettable” with a double female lead.
Paula Schwartz is a veteran journalist who worked at the New York Times for three decades. For five years she was the Baguette for the New York Times movie awards blog Carpetbaggers. Before that she worked on the New York Times night life column, Boldface, where she covered the celebrity beat. She endured a poke in the ribs by Elijah Wood's publicist, was ejected from a party by Michael Douglas's flak after he didn't appreciate what she wrote, and endured numerous other indignities to get a story. More happily she interviewed major actors and directors - all of whom were good company and extremely kind- including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Plummer, Dustin Hoffman and the hammy pooch "Uggie" from "The Artist." Her idea of heaven is watching at least three movies in a row with an appreciative audience that's not texting. Her work has appeared in Moviemaker, more.com, showbiz411 and reelifewithjane.com.