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Amma Asante: 'I'm changing the narrative for little girls'

Amma Asante became the first black female director to win a British Academy of Film award for "A Way of Life" in 2005 and recently directed "Belle."
Portrait of Amma Asante. (Photo by Hazel Thompson)
Portrait of Amma Asante.

msnbc is celebrating black history by profiling game-changing black musicians and film directors throughout February. 

Amma Asante is a former actress who became the first black female film director to win a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for "A Way of Life" in 2005. Asante was raised in London by Ghanian parents and was largely influenced by their taste in American music from Billie Holiday to Luther Vandross. In 2013, she released "Belle," a historical drama that was screened in U.S. theaters and won several awards, including five NAACP Image Awards and two British Independent Film Awards. 

Describe who you are and what you do in one breath:

I am a film director and storyteller. I write and direct movies. I hope to move people in my stories.

Describe some of the sights and sounds from your childhood and how they have influenced your films?

I grew up with a lot of music … A lot of jazz, a lot of Billie Holiday … Sam Cooke. Moving on as I got a little older, Luther Vandross. My dad used to love Ella Fitzgerald … At home, I had a very black world. A world of black artists, a world of talk about the country where my parents were originally from, Ghana, West Africa. Food was very much a part of it. My mother cooking a lot of West African food. Sights for me: I grew up in a really white world, outside of home.

How far back can you trace your family history?

Probably four generations. I’m really wanting to take the DNA test [with Professor Louis Gates] and find out more … I kind of pretty much know that my parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents came from Africa. But I’d like to know what part. Was it always West Africa?

"I want my existence to be a reminder to young women of color out there that it is possible."'

How do you think your flavor is different than what you see now in other filmmakers?

I probably bring a feminine sensibility to my work. I do bring an aspect of being bicultural to my work but am also the child of immigrants -- I’m a first generationer’ in the UK. I like to tell tough stories in a way that brings humanity and moves people.

Are there any critical stories that haven’t been told that you want to get to one day or that are just glaringly missing from media and movies?

There are many that I would eventually hope to cover at some point. A movie I’m about to make is “Unforgettable” for Warner Brothers. It's a double-female lead and it tells a story of a first wife coming to terms with her husband's [second] wife. I'm a second wife. After that, I’ll be moving on with a piece about history from 1940s Europe that looks at the black experience.

Who or where are you drawing creative inspiration from?

Prince right back to the Ella Fitzgeralds of the world, the Billie Holidays of this world. I like a lot of contemporary music. Music is the kind of modern day poetry … History. Art. I cannot write without listening to music.

If you had to choose two songs and two films to play on repeat … forever:

Sam Cooke - “A Change Is Gonna Come” / Prince - “Purple Rain

"The Pianist" directed by Roman Polanski / "12 Years a Slave" directed by Steve McQueen 

What type of challenges and breakthroughs did you have in making “Belle”?

Creatively it was a smooth process for me. From the moment I saw the painting [Johann Zoffany's 18th century painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray] to the moment I called “cut” for the last time on set, creatively it was a really rewarding and natural process for me. The biggest breakthrough was being able to support Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is the lead actress … presenting her talent to the world. Discovering the power of my own talent, and discovering that my writing and my work has value.

The difficult part for me was learning that I put all of that energy into years of writing the words and movie that you see on the screen but was not going to be credited for my work. That’s really hard when you realize your intellect and your savvy and your creativity is going to be presented as someone else’s because of a union decision.

It’s nice to have a range of stories that speak to the African diaspora and a contrast from “12 Years a Slave”:

Absolutely -- I’m changing the narrative for little girls, and little boys as well have found the value in seeing a woman who is not a slave, who has dignity, and who is trying to affirm her identity in spite of what the world is telling her. I think that is a great message to the story I wanted to create. And being a part of impacting the culture we live in, is a gift.

You mentioned in a Ted Talk that .4% of directors are black females. After the success of "Belle," do you feel that you have more access?

Yes, I definitely feel that I have more access. "Belle" gave me an opportunity not just to platform the talent of Gugu, but platform my own talent which was really important ... I feel like I have a responsibility in many ways to be clear to young women of color that are coming up today, that despite coming up in a male dominated industry, that is predominately white, the fact that I exist in this industry means that they too can exist. It means it's possible. If I had grown up with these kind of role models around me, I would not have had the notion that I did have, that all directors are white and male. I want my existence to be a reminder to young women of color out there that it is possible. 

How do you feel race and gender dynamics played into the Oscar nominations this year?

It’s a complex issue … the nominations we’re talking about is a result of the exclusion and inclusion of certain types within in the industry. We’re also talking about an organization that, in all honesty, is really small, and has a really particular demographic of membership. In the end, if that’s who we’re going to allow to validate our work as artists, then in a way, we have to accept the choice that particularly very small demographic is going to make, or change the demographic of the industry we are in … This is a problem that starts in the root up not the awards down.  

What is your greatest form of validation as an artist?

I find that responses I get from those who are moved by the work I’ve done. Those who’ve sat in the audience and taken the time to engage with my film.

"I cannot write without listening to music."'

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud that I sustained rejection and that I reached beyond it. And, despite the fact that it took 10 years to make my second film after becoming the first black woman in the UK to win a British Academy Award for directing, I persevered and I continued so I could make “Belle”. 

If you had a chance to talk to President Obama, what would you say?

By his very presence, he has changed the cultural DNA of my mixed-race nephew’s future, and that by his very existence he has proved to me that so much more is possible.

If you had to rewrite history …

I would rewrite it so no human being ever felt that they could benefit from the enslavement of another human being.

What were your memories of Black History Month as a child in school? What do you make of it today?

We’ve had a difficult time with Black History Month in the UK. I’m 45 and it’s only within the last decade that it’s taken on a great significance. I wonder sometimes what difference it would have made in my life, how much more encouraged I would have been if Black History Month would have been prevalent in my life growing up as a child. I’m grateful that it exists in the UK today … we have so many ways through which we can celebrate Black History Month today that allow children in the UK to access it and it is far more pronounced in the United States as well.

Follow Amma Asante on Twitter: @AmmaAsante

Check out the previous profile in the series: Dear White People’ director Justin Simien reveals inspirations