A Jane Austen–style period drama, Belle is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle. The illegitimate, mixed-race offspring of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and enslaved African Maria Belle, young Dido was brought to London to be raised by her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of England. Director Amma Asante has created in Belle a wealthy heiress who is prohibited from sitting with her relatives at formal dinners, a feisty, intelligent woman seeking to find her own place in a society that views blacks as pets, and, finally, a moral compass guiding Lord Mansfield to end slavery in England. •Availability: See Fox Searchlight Pictures for local listings. •Thanks to John Maybee and Jen Crocker, Fox Searchlight Pictures, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Belle had a magnificent screening at the UN for the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. At the Q&A following the film, you said you felt responsibility for Dido’s story. Can you extrapolate on that?
AA: As a young actress, and then writer, and then director, I thought I would never find the right story where I would be able to tell an authentic period drama that could have a black lead in it. Finding Dido’s story, I suddenly felt a sense of responsibility to little girls who grew up like me, falling in love with the romantic period drama but never seeing themselves reflected in it. I had to make sure that Dido was a strong, inspiring character, but I also wanted to give a voice to this historic character, who is important for so many reasons. This is a woman who was privileged, more than most Caucasians at the time. She could read, she could write, she lived in a beautiful home, she had food every day, she was educated in all the ways an aristocratic lady should be. One of the difficulties I had when I was putting the story together was creating a character like this, who appears to be asking for more when she’s already so privileged, and making sure that audiences understand that she’s actually asking for a fundamental human right, which is equality. It was about making sure that she was drawn in such a way that she was feisty and strong, couldn’t be labeled with the Angry Black Woman label or the Difficult Woman label, but whereby audiences—whatever color they are, whatever gender they are, and despite the fact that it’s a period drama—could walk in her shoes and understand what her needs were. This is not a story of a woman who isn’t loved. She’s loved, she’s very, very loved, but she has to show the people around her the right way to love her. I wanted to introduce those nuances and get them right so that they would be understood in the right way and Dido would be seen to be the important character that I believe she is in our history.
DT: Let’s talk about the power of imagery for a moment. You were inspired to create Belle when you saw a postcard-sized reproduction of a painting. Can you talk about your reaction when you saw the postcard?
AA: When I saw the image, what I saw was the opportunity to tell a story that could combine history, politics, and art, because I looked at the picture and that’s immediately what I saw. I saw a black female in a strong position in an eighteenth-century painting that was unlike anything I’d seen before. A year prior to seeing the painting, I’d gone to an art exhibit in Amsterdam that looked at the history of black people in European art from the fourteenth century onward. What that taught me was that we were pets, accessories in paintings at the time of the eighteenth century. We were there purely to express the status of the main protagonist in the painting. We were always lower down, often in the background, never looking at the painter, always looking up in awe at the Caucasian protagonist, and always with our arms reaching out toward that person so that your eye was drawn to them. When I saw the Dido/Elizabeth painting, what I was able to see was how courageous and unusual and unique this painting was, both in terms of the person who had commissioned it—Lord Mansfield—and also in terms of whoever painted it (there’s some discrepancy as to who the artist actually was). The postcard fell into my lap in a great context; when I was putting together my vision for the kind of story I wanted to tell, courage and love were the big themes that I carried with me, and this painting was a courageous piece of work. It inspired me to go digging up my own research, find my own idea of who Dido was and how her story worked, and really be able to create my vision of this film. The other day, I Tweeted, “Can a painting change society?” I think it can. This one completely inspired me as a filmmaker. My movies give me an education; they force me to do a degree in the subject matter in order to be able to tell them properly.
I was already writing an adaptation of Lady Susan, the only Jane Austen piece that’s never been made, and I had already gone very, very deeply into gender issues for women in the eighteenth century. I was buried in that, obsessed, and I was also obsessed with telling a love story. The BFI, the British Film Institute, had Damian Jones [one of Belle’s producers] send me the postcard, because they said I was obsessed with telling a love story and obsessed with females in the eighteenth century, so perhaps this would be a way for me to tie the two together and tell the story that I wanted to tell. Damian had been trying to get a movie off the ground for quite a while, and Belle, which started life as an HBO TV project, had come to the BFI. Then it became a question of how we could create a vision for a film that financiers would want to put money into and that would attract a cast, that was thematic and was going to deal with the themes a director would want to work with as well. So that’s how it came to me: in postcard form.
DT: Since you were inspired by an image, can you talk about how you, as the director, used imagery in Belle to inspire other people?
AA: I devised my vision so that at the beginning of the film Dido and her cousin Elizabeth [who were raised together by Lord and Lady Mansfield] are dwarfed by their surroundings. Kenwood House is a big house with high ceilings; the girls were like tiny dolls in a giant doll’s house. They were protected from the outside world, so to express their naivete I wanted them in very gentle pastels, gentle pinks and blues, childlike colors, just to express their innocence. Then as we move through the story, their environment becomes smaller and tighter, the ceilings become lower. I wanted a sense of them becoming bigger characters in their world, so that what you had was a sense of them becoming fuller in their world, becoming women in their world.
Then the colors are not pastels anymore, they’re much more sophisticated colors, they become deeper, emerald greens, rich, dark woods, and midnight blues, and it becomes a different color palette for you. I did that so I could express the interior journey I wanted them to have with an exterior journey as well. But then once you go into John’s world [John Davinier, a passionate abolitionist who later became Belle’s husband], it’s a lower-class world—the area where he sits in the inn and has his meetings is much more earthy and natural and real, and I wanted that to speak to his integrity and authenticity. He was the moral reminder to do the right thing, so for me that was one sense of imagery. The second sense of imagery was to take you through my journey of seeing the paintings as they would have been at that time, seeing these paintings—with black servants, black slaves, black people as the accessory, as the pet—through Belle’s eyes. They’re distressing to her. Then I bring you to the point where we see her image in the Dido/Elizabeth painting, where she’s so different; she’s looking out at the painter, she’s higher up than the painter, it is Elizabeth’s hand that is touching her, drawing your eye to Dido. It’s a much more confident image of a person of color, treating Dido with equal, if not more, value than Elizabeth. The third sense of imagery was about identity and reflection. One of the questions I ask in both the films I’ve made so far, and I think I’ll make in every single movie I ever make, is this idea of who defines you—society or yourself? And at what point do you make that decision to define yourself, to say I’m not going to let society take control over who I’m supposed to be but I will take control over who I am, and whoever that may be, I’m OK with that, I’m OK with that version of myself. There are three significant mirror scenes for Dido in the film. In the first one, I bring her to a moment that I went through myself. When I was about fourteen years old, I lived in a predominantly white environment. We were one of only two black families on the street. We used to get feces in our mailbox and graffiti on the walls, and we were pretty much harassed the whole time. When I would leave the front door, I would get the most racist language you could possibly imagine as a small child. I found it very difficult, and I felt that if I could just get rid of being so noticeable, I would be left alone outside my own front door. I reached a point when I was about fourteen when I just wanted away, I wanted off, I just wanted to disappear, and I transposed that moment to Dido, when you see that self-harming moment before the mirror.
DT: It was tremendously powerful.
AA: At that point society is really breaking her down, defining her as someone who’s less valuable. Then we get to the second mirror moment, which I call the Mabel moment [when Mabel, a black servant, teaches Dido how to dress her hair]. I wanted there to be a point in the movie where we look at maternal legacy and what it feels like when you are not raised by a mother who looks like you, as Lady Mansfield doesn’t look like Dido, and what happens with all those things we take for granted if we’re lucky enough to be raised by our mothers, all those things they pass on to us. I was thinking about cooking, and how we often learn to cook from our mothers, and then I thought, “Dido wouldn’t cook for herself. What can I come up with here?” Every black woman is crazy about her hair, so although it’s a superficial moment, it’s really about the sorrow Dido feels for not having her mother in her life and not having anybody around who looks like her and can reflect who she is in her entirety. It also allowed me the opportunity to create the character of Mabel, who is fully black and who could teach Dido something she’s learned from her own mother. I wanted that moment to mirror Dido’s journey toward self-discovery and self-awareness, so that by the time we come to the third reflection of Dido, what you have is a woman who is much more comfortable with herself.
She’s decided that she isn’t going to marry Oliver Ashford, as he doesn’t love her in the way that she requires. She feels that she is worthy of being loved, and as she takes off the ring, she has a very gentle smile on her face, one that says, I’m OK. I wanted to use those three mirror moments to first bring her down to rock bottom, then take her through the transition with Mabel, and then—for all little girls who have ever felt uncomfortable with themselves, and for all women who have ever felt uncomfortable with themselves—have her be OK by that end mirror reflection scene, because now she’s in a place where she’s going to define who she is; society is not going to define her or make her feel bad about who she is anymore.
DT: The film contains some incredibly racist language.
AA: My ex-husband was white. I was twenty-two when I met his mother. She looked at me, then turned to him and said, “She’s very pretty, but she’s very, very black.” I could hear her, and at twenty-two I didn’t know what to do. Frankly, I was devastated. I am very black, and ten years on, she would still often say the same thing—“That dress looks very pretty on her, but she’s so black.” In some ways she liked me, but to her great disappointment her son had chosen to marry somebody who was very, very black. Sometimes I get asked about the bold language in Belle, but I think it’s important that all areas of society know that we go through that. Sometimes we have to hear people talking about us in a very bold and horrific manner, and it’s brutal. It felt brutal to me at twenty-three.
DT: At the UN, you described a moment when Miranda Richardson had to say the line “She’s black” in front of the seven-year-old girl playing the young Dido. Richardson was so uncomfortable delivering the line that she turned to you and said, “Do you think she can hear me?” You had to reassure her that the little girl had read the script and was well aware of what was going to be said.
AA: Actually, it was all of them, it wasn’t just Miranda. It was the scene where Dido’s father brings the young Dido to Lord Mansfield’s house for the first time, and the actors have to say, “She’s black. You forgot to tell us.” They were very worried about expressing this kind of language in front of a little girl. I had to explain to them that this little girl was pretty streetwise and quite savvy; she’s actually seven years old, a little North London girl, and certainly she would have heard this language before. My mixed-race nephew was four years old the first time he was called a mongrel by a grown woman in the park, so the idea that these little impressionable children do not hear this language is just wrong, because they do. When you’re dealing with actors, you’re usually dealing with very enlightened people, particularly the cast we assembled; if you look at their track records, they choose really interesting projects, and part of their art is about wishing to enlighten people. However, they haven’t necessarily walked in my shoes, so for them to know that a little girl might have heard language like this, or that I might have heard language like this when I was small, is really difficult for them to deal with. You have to make it light when you’re in that situation as a director. You can’t make it too deep or too heavy, because it becomes too difficult for everybody to perform at that point, so I had to help them laugh by saying, “I promise you she knows what’s in the script.” The same thing happened with my first movie as well, where a much younger cast would get quite down about having to express that kind of language in front of me. It’s interesting. I felt good about that, in a way. It’s hopeful, right?
DT: It’s wonderful…in the sense that they feel that way, not in the sense that a seven-year-old already knew what it was like. Actually, that brings me to my next question. Your first film, A Way of Life, was a low-budget indie film that dealt with issues of race. This film, produced by Fox Searchlight, is a high-budget period piece dealing with race, feminism, and class. Your next film,Unforgettable, will be a thriller produced by Warner Brothers. Where do you want your directing career to go, and how does Unforgettable fit in with the trajectory of projects you want to do?
AA: That’s a really, really great question that I also had to ask myself. Here’s the deal. Unforgettableis being produced by two amazing female producers—Denise Di Novi and Alison Greenspan. The movie itself is a thriller that has a double female lead. This is what I just loved about it. The script looks at the world of a divorced first wife who reaches a tipping point when her husband remarries. And it’s the story of a second wife, too, looking at gender and status: What happens when you’re no longer a Mrs? How do you move through society when so much of your identity has been invested in your marriage and in your partner? What happens when he goes, and where do you find yourself? Where do you find your sense of identity? And as a second wife, what happens when you suddenly have to fit the puzzle of the missing piece of a family and walk in another woman’s shoes? I’m a second wife, and sometimes it feels like that. Obviously that perspective is not how it feels for everybody, but it certainly does for this character. She feels like she’s walking in another woman’s shoes, and where does she find her own sense of self-value when walking in the shadow of this other woman? So it’s different, it’s contemporary, but it’s still dealing with many of the themes that interest me. It’s also written by a female writer, which appeals to me. I’ll be working in a way that I haven’t worked before, and I was inspired and fascinated by the script. Completely. Also, I want to prove that I can do the real big-budget stuff as well. I look up to Kubrick, I look up to those people who would shake it up and who would take their themes from one movie to the next even if, on the surface, those movies seem very different.
DT: At the UN, you talked about the ability of films to unlock resistance.
AA: To unlock resistance but also to inspire the debate when it comes to change. As I said earlier, I looked at this painting, and the question I asked myself was, Can a painting change society? Well, a painting has inspired me to make a movie, and suddenly one day I’m sitting there at the UN screening this movie, and I’m asking myself, What can a movie inspire people to be and to do and to think about and to talk about and to act upon? One of the things I wanted to do with the movie was to bring to John Davinier [the abolitionist who, along with Belle, persuades Lord Mansfield to end slavery in England] the idea of being a lawyer.
Nothing in the original script that was brought to me had John Davinier as a lawyer. The reason I wanted to do that was to be able to look at both sides of the legal question when it came to the Zong. [In 1781, 132 Africans aboard the Liverpool slave ship Zong were thrown overboard so that the owners could collect insurance on them; the case, ruled on by Lord Mansfield, figures prominently throughout the film.] I wanted to be able to explore the legal question, and the easiest way to do that was to have Lord Mansfield have somebody he could bounce these questions off of or who could bounce these questions off of him. Whenever you have a relationship within a movie, you want the relationship to be two-way. It’s so obvious to us what John brings to Lord Mansfield—he’s the moral reminder, he’s the moral flag, he’s the do-the-right-thing guy. But what does Lord Mansfield bring to John? I wanted him to bring the idea that sometimes you have to be in the game to change the game. Sometimes you have to know the game to change the game, and you have to be a part of the establishment to do that. Though passion and being a loose cannon can sometimes inspire change to begin, in the way that we’ve seen with the Arab Spring, it still takes the establishment to implement those changes. When I think about resistance, what films can do is bring politics to an audience without them feeling like they’re being bashed over the head. Without them feeling like the onus is on them to do something about something important. Without them being told, This is a really important subject: it simply allows them to think, This is a really important subject in their own minds, to decide, This is something I want to do something about. To choose to do something differently rather than feeling like they have to. Many people who go to movies aren’t necessarily watching political shows. They’re not necessarily reading the papers. My dad used to come home with every single Sunday paper that was printed, to get every view. He loved to get every side of the story. Not everybody does that, and I think films can bring these issues to the table without anybody feeling like they’re being hammered over the head by them.
DT: Is there anything you want to add?
AA: How proud I am of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance in this movie and what a powerhouse performance she gives, supported by all of those incredible women and gentlemen. I can’t let an interview go by without saying that.
Copyright © Director Talk 2014