‘Belle’ Director Amma Asante Is Changing the Lens for Women

DAME talks with the filmmaker about her groundbreaking, Jane Austen–inspired movie that looks at race and gender in a whole new way.

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On its surface, Belle (premiering in theaters on Friday) may seem like a beautiful film in the grand tradition of adapting Jane Austen’s witty novels about love, marriage, and class. And it is. But director Amma Asante takes it one step further by adding race to the mix in this romantic period drama inspired by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a biracial woman who lived as an English aristocrat when Britain’s slave trade was still alive and well. Dido (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised by her great-aunt and -uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield, as the sister and best friend of their daughter, her cousin, Elizabeth. But as Dido grows up, she’s no longer able to swallow their differences and how disparately she’s treated by society and their own family—even her great-uncle (Tom Wilkinson) who loves Dido as a daughter, won’t let her eat dinner with her family if they have company. To complicate matters, Dido’s great-uncle is the Lord Chief Justice of England, and must judge a landmark case regarding the Zong massacre—the tragic killing of a boatful of slaves for insurance money. As the girls’ search for suitors begins, complicated issues of wealth and heritage arise, especially when Dido meets the handsome young lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), whose radical views on equality and abolition open Dido’s eyes and light a fire in her heart.

Based on extensive research by screenwriter Misan Sagay and Asante, Belle was originally inspired by a painting of Dido and Elizabeth that Sagay spotted at Scotland’s Scone Palace. DAME met up with Asante in New York City for an inspiring chat about this crucial painting, the political significance of Dido’s story, the feminism of Jane Austen, and why Belle is abuzz on social media.

Let’s get the simplest question out of the way first. ‘Belle’ is such an incredible true story. How did this never get developed before?

There have been theater plays about Dido Belle. There was a short film. There are various interpretations using the same history that we use for her life, but they’re different. Oftentimes they’ll paint Elizabeth and Dido as not getting on with each other, but that’s not what I saw when I looked at the painting. What I chose to deduce from the painting, with Elizabeth’s hand resting so, to me, lovingly on Dido, was sisterhood, a great female bond. And that’s what I wanted to portray.

But the story has been out there in various versions. I’m a deep researcher, not to throw any shade at anybody else’s research, but I think we used the most history in terms of Lord Mansfield, the Zong, Dido, and what we know about Dido’s mother. And of course I think [my version] is the closest to the truth, but I would say that! But as you say, yeah, it’s not been told in this big way before, and that’s because it was waiting for me to tell it. I had to grow up enough to be able to tell it! [laughs]

What I love about ‘Belle’ is that it’s got this Jane Austen beauty, and the issues that Austen usually tackles about class and women, but then it has this Trojan horse of race and things that are very subtle that open up a dialogue for us today.

As a black woman, I wanted to tell a very Jane Austen-esque story. I’m a lover of Jane Austen, I came to her late in life, but in some ways I’m glad that I did because it meant that I came to her with a better understanding of what she does, and how she used wit and her storytelling to really present quite a feminist stance. But, you know, how could I, as a woman of color, tell this story of genteel English life and not acknowledge the fact that what was holding up the economy of that life, of that world, of that culture, came off of the back of the slave trade? So I think that’s the lens that a black female comes to it with—you have that responsibility, you have to tell both stories. But my dream was always to tell an Austen-esque period drama, something that stayed true to what has become a sub-genre of filmmaking now, of adaptation storytelling. But I had to also honor who I was as a filmmaker, which is not someone who could ignore the political aspects of the time.

I think there’s a lot of nuance to the story that a male filmmaker or a white filmmaker would not have noticed, like the scene in which Mabel [a young black woman the Mansfields hire as a maid] shows Dido how to do her hair.

I love that you bring that up.

So much of it is unspoken.

This movie, and all my movies—[laughs] all my two movies—are as much about what is not said, what goes on between the lines, as what is said. That scene came about because I was thinking about the legacy of maternal love. What happens when the woman who is raising you doesn’t look like you? The woman who is essentially the mother in your life is not there to be able to pass these things onto you because she is of a different race. That is why Mabel says in that scene, “My mother taught me, see?” I was trying to work out a way that we could establish that so an audience could understand. Who else could Dido be except confused and going through an identity crisis when there’s not a single human being that can reflect who she is in the world that she lives in?

I was thinking of all the different ways that that could be done. Could it be through a cooking scene? Well, Dido wouldn’t cook for herself. But what is something that would come up every day for us as females? What is something that would remind you every day that your mother [isn’t there] to show you these things that we take for granted? [That’s] hair. Hair is the girl’s thing, right? Hair is definitely the black girl’s thing. And I felt that that could be very contemporary, something that a young girl could go through today if she did not have that maternal legacy to lean on, but something that definitely is timeless and could resonate in the 18th century as well.

That’s what we can do as females. We can change the lens. We can tell old stories, but we can change the lens that these stories are told through, and we can bring them to you in a new way as audiences, and that’s why we need to do more, to make sure that women directors, women writers can be out there telling stories.

People’s social media response to Belle has been really excited, and I feel that it shows that there’s an underserved audience in Hollywood.

Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it show the hunger?

There’s a huge hunger for people to see themselves onscreen.

Absolutely. Of course, it’s very important that aesthetically Dido’s the visual package, but ‘themselves’ can also mean the interior package as well. And that is why for me, I feel Belle is a film that can resonate with black girls, white girls, black guys, white guys. It’s gender-specific, race-specific, and it’s not, all at the same time.

These girls that are tweeting at me and tweeting about it, I just love it because I realize that the film is having an impact on them. And like you say, there’s a hunger. There’s an anticipation. I know now the meaning of the word buzz. I get it, absolutely, and it’s very fulfilling.

As a lover of Jane Austen, it must have been so fun to put together such a beautiful movie. The costumes, the locations…

Apart from wanting to come at this with the important themes—the weight of the themes of the Zong, the politics, the gender status issues, all of that—I’m a girl, and I’m unashamedly a girl, and I love period dramas. I love the color, the beauty that you can bring. But there was another important factor in this, that apart from proving I could tell a traditional period drama with a black girl at the lead, I wanted to prove, with a black woman behind the scenes, that, look, we can do this. We have the capabilities. We have the skills to tell these stories, and so it was important for me to make it as beautiful, as lush, as sweeping as it could possibly be so nobody could ever say, “Well, it’s not a real period drama, is it? It doesn’t really remind me of Austen or ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or any of those things.” I wanted it to have the quality of those movies, and I think it does. We worked hard so that it would, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

‘Belle’ has been playing festivals around the world. What has the reception been like?

It’s been ridiculous! I mean, it’s been ridiculous in the most positive way possible. It’s not what I could have dreamed of, in so many ways. You know, Toronto was a three-minute standing ovation at our world premiere. At Athena, just sitting amongst those girls and having them talk back to the screening: “Oh, no she didn’t!” and “No, she’s not gonna marry him!” and “What?!” When you’re creating a movie, what you’re doing is you want to create a conversation between the audience and the movie. Most of the time that’s happening in their head, but with Belle, that’s happening out loud! It’s not a metaphorical conversation; it’s a literal conversation between viewers and the film. And that’s great. That’s the kind of movie I want to make.

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