Interview: Amma Asante on Embodying the Shift Towards Diversity in Hollywood

Image: Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in A United Kingdom

Image: Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in A United Kingdom

Emma Jones

When I tell Amma Asante, director of A United Kingdom, the most recent statistics for non-white female filmmakers, she yelps.

The figure, from the Directors Guild of America, is only at 1.4 percent, but her shout is one of delight. “It’s doubled!” she says.

Counting black female directors with a movie that’s released in cinemas might actually be possible using fingers. On one hand. Come back to me once you’ve got past Amma and Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, who could have been the lone provider of that DGA statistic for that year.

However, the always effervescent Asante supplies the right word for the increase. “It’s shifting,” she says, “It’s definitely doubled since I first came on the scene, but we have a way to go. And telling stories like A United Kingdom from a period in the past allows you to see how far we have come.”

 
Image: Amma Asante at the BFI London Film Festival

Image: Amma Asante at the BFI London Film Festival

 

Her movie, which opened the BFI London Film Festival after its world premiere at Toronto, is one of two performance-rich films this awards season that looks at mixed-race relationships (Jeff Nichols’ Loving is the other) in a less tolerant time. A United Kingdom stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in London, 1947 – very much the era of Netflix’s The Crown. Oyelowo plays royalty too, Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana, who incurred the outrage of Winston Churchill, the entire British establishment, and to be fair, provoked horror in the establishment of Botswana too, when he married a white woman, Ruth Williams, a London secretary.       

Unlike the tint of nostalgia-provoking glamour that’s part of The Crown, under Asante’s gaze, the nastiness, racism and downright ludicrousness of the last days of the British Empire in A United Kingdom means that most Brits should be heartily glad when the sun finally sets on it and Sertse and Ruth are left to live in peace.


"My parents came to Britain from Ghana during that post-war period, and although Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence from Britain, from the tales my Father would tell me of the Empire, they weren’t wonderful stories, to be honest. I saw this as a real way to empower myself and have some power over the period."


“It was good to poke fun at that era,” she agrees. “My parents came to Britain from Ghana during that post-war period, and although Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence from Britain, from the tales my Father would tell me of the Empire, they weren’t wonderful stories, to be honest. I saw this as a real way to empower myself and have some power over the period.

“I think I had the right kind of distance because I am the child of immigrants, to see the daft side of it all. I know a nostalgia for those days exists, and that is why it’s important to have a different kind of filmmaker see it through their gaze. Someone else might imbue this film with nostalgia and tell a different story. I am very proud to present my vision.”

How hard has Amma had to work to get so far that, almost certainly, her next stop will be with a Hollywood studio? The Londoner started as a child actress (some Generation X Brits will be shocked to hear she was in iconic school series Grange Hill) and worked as an actress and a writer before her 2004 directing debut, A Way of Life – set in the British urban underbelly. However, it was nearly ten years before her next feature, Belle, gave her wider attention. What did she have to sacrifice?


 "I am so proud I got to this point with this film. It isn’t a point which you ever do dare to think about, when you are in a ditch in Botswana in the searing heat, preparing for a scene.”     


“Family,” she says immediately. “I have had to spend three years out of four away from my husband, although we spend weekends together. I would love to see my mother more often. But, you know, they understand why I have to do what I do, and I am so proud I got to this point with this film. It isn’t a point which you ever do dare to think about, when you are in a ditch in Botswana in the searing heat, preparing for a scene.”     

Image: Oyelowo and Pike in A United Kingdom

Image: Oyelowo and Pike in A United Kingdom

Despite David Oyelowo’s bar-raising classiness in every performance he does, A United Kingdom is more likely to be rewarded by the British than in the North American awards season – if, infuriatingly, only “one” film of diversity gets recognised per year (12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, The Help). In 2016 that movie is overwhelmingly likely to be Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, although watch out for Ruth Negga in Loving for Best Actress.   

Moonlight has eclipsed all other comers, including another, more controversial period drama, The Birth of a Nation, and Asante is delighted with its success as “the first sign that we are coming out of infancy in the stories we are allowed to tell.

“So, we have started with our history, and I think period movies do allow us a benchmark to measure how far we have come and how far we have to go, and they contribute to a discussion. We are also more distanced from the problem, and that allows us to feel safer to talk about it, but I hope it allows us to walk in the shoes of those who still suffer prejudice.


Asante herself, whose articulacy in communicating her vision makes you think she would have been flying high twenty years ago were she not designed with her sex and skin.


“I hope that in the natural progression of things, we are going to have a futuristic set film one day, maybe with a predominantly black cast but at the moment we don’t have the luxury. The films that attract audiences right now mainly seem to be historical. ”   

Belle was exactly that, and as the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a young black girl adopted into the eighteenth century British aristocracy, was a tale of mixed race love set against even more brutal prejudice. But Asante herself, whose articulacy in communicating her vision makes you think she would have been flying high twenty years ago were she not designed with her sex and skin, already has ideas for those who may wish to employ her next.

“One day I really want to make a film about a female inventor,” she says. “And if that woman happened to be black, even better.”   

 

A United Kingdom is on release in the UK now. It is released in the USA in February 2017.

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