Film-maker Amma Asante on race, Brexit and meeting Prince

As ‘A United Kingdom’ opens in the UK, the director tells Emma Jacobs why we need new perspectives
Film-maker Amma Asante at the Century Club, London, October 2016 © Peter Watkins

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Amma Asante is a film director. Amma Asante is a former child actor who starred in Grange Hill and met Nancy Reagan. Amma Asante is a massive Prince fan who had a private meeting with the pop-funk iconoclast. Amma Asante is from south London, born to Ghanaian parents, married to a Dane. Amma Asante is sitting here today because her mum made her go to secretarial college.

All of these facts are true. But how to select such biographical fragments, arrange them, to shape a narrative? That is up to the person telling the story. Those details could speak as much about me — bewitched by the BBC school drama growing up, listening to Purple Rain while teaching myself to touch-type using Mavis Beacon software — as to the woman sitting in front of me in a private members’ club in Soho. You might assemble the fragments entirely differently. 

Asante is intrigued by perspective. Her work as a director and writer is driven, in part, by a desire to open up our narrow cultural view — one that has so often been male and white. “I’m fascinated by how a story changes just by changing the gaze that it comes through,” she tells me, warming her long fingers on a cup of tea. “I’m trying to tell stories that open new windows.” 

The 47-year-old is enjoying something of a moment. In October, she became the first black director to open the London Film Festival, with her new film A United Kingdom, which tells the true story of a taboo-breaking interracial marriage in postwar Britain between Seretse Khama, who went on to become the first president of Botswana, and Ruth Williams, a white English office clerk. It is Asante’s third feature film, and production is under way on her next, Where Hands Touch, an interracial love story set in Nazi Germany.

Despite her personal achievements, Asante is frustrated. She wants more female directors, more people who are black or ethnic minority to scale the industry pyramid: “I’m desperate to go to the cinema and have an offering that gives me a choice on screen and isn’t just different versions of a similar perspective.” Softly spoken but chatty, Asante’s vowels lengthen, her Ts disappear, showing her south London roots, as thoughts and ideas tumble out.

Asante (bottom right) in 'Grange Hill', 1986 © Alamy

Born in 1969, Asante grew up in Streatham. Her parents ran a shop selling African cosmetics and, later, groceries. In the early years before her father, who had trained as an accountant in Ghana, qualified in the UK, her mother took on cleaning jobs. The memory of that time is something she calls to mind when dealing with everyday film-industry irritations. “I remember waking up at 3.30 in the morning [for a film shoot] and I was in a bad mood because I’m not a morning person. And I remembered that my mum used to wake up at the same time every single day to go and stand at the bus stop in the rain, to go and do two cleaning jobs before she opened her shop, sell in her shop all day and then do two more cleaning jobs before she came home; so I could do what I’m doing.”

Encouraged by her parents to attend drama school to combat her shyness, she got a part in the BBC school drama Grange Hill. “It taught me that I could not act,” she says, smiling, “but it [also] taught me what a great performance looked like because I had great people around me who could act. And it taught me the power of a story.”

The role also earned her an invitation to Washington DC, as part of the series’ anti-drugs storyline, to meet First Lady Nancy Reagan, who was fronting a “Just Say No” campaign. “I just remember how happy it made my dad and my mum… I was really excited to go to America; I was really excited to go away without my family, I could go away like a grown-up.” But more than that: “I just wanted to be one of the ones that was picked.”

While at secretarial college — recommended by her mother so she had a skill to fall back on — she wrote a sitcom. Ostensibly to improve her typing speed, it provided an opportunity to develop the storytelling instinct that would shape her career. That first attempt led to a few scripts that were developed but never produced. In the late 1990s, Asante wrote and produced a BBC2 series set in a congregational choir in Liverpool called Brothers and Sisters, which starred a 22-year-old David Oyelowo. He would go on to play the male lead in A United Kingdom.

For a while, writing seemed to be her future. Then she wrote a script about poverty and racism in a small Welsh community. While she was researching possible directors, the UK Film Council encouraged her to take it on herself. The idea hadn’t occurred to her. “I knew that there were female [directors] out there but nobody that was in my world… and so it just simply didn’t dawn on me to be a female directing… It seemed very male,” she says. 

Stephanie James, Gary Sheppeard, Nathan Jones and Dean Wong in 'A Way of Life' (2004) © Alamy

Released in 2004, A Way of Life is bleak and at times difficult to watch. The film tells the story of a gobby, racist, single mum who joins a throng of teens as they kick a Turkish Muslim man to death. It won Asante a Bafta Carl Foreman Award for Special Achievement and changed her career trajectory.

More than a decade since its release, the film seems depressingly contemporary — the Home Office recently reported a sharp rise in hate crimes motivated by race or religion in the wake of the referendum to leave the European Union. While Asante had never experienced violent racism personally, she says she wanted to understand what would motivate murderous hatred. “I come from a belief that if we think we can exclude any portion of society… and say, ‘You don’t have any value, you don’t have any voice, you have no right to contribute to the mainstream world that the rest of us are going to live in’ — if you think the only people we’re going to hurt and harm is that excluded group, we’re nuts.” Racism is treated as a symptom rather than the cause in the film. “The cause is class inequality, exclusion,” she says, adding: “If all parts of society had felt heard… I don’t believe we’d have had a [vote for] Brexit.” 

She developed her idea of a director’s role on that first feature. “Let me present a world to you, let me present a point of view, you may disagree, you may agree, that’s perfectly your prerogative,” she explains. “But you might just want to know more.” 

Her next film, Belle (2013), was an Austen-esque tale of Britain’s 18th-century marriage market, serrated by the legacy of slavery. It tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real-life daughter of an African slave, and John Lindsay, a British naval officer. Belle was brought up by Lindsay’s uncle, the first Earl of Mansfield (and Lord Chief Justice of England) at Kenwood House in London. 

Belle became a small indie commercial success after it was acquired for distribution by Fox Searchlight and was championed in the US by Oprah Winfrey. Worldwide, the film made $17m on a budget of $9m. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who played Belle, told me that she was struck by Asante’s self-possession and articulacy when she first met her nine years ago. “She knows what she wants, and you feel very secure.” Asante was also, she adds, rigorous about historical research while remaining focused on a compelling narrative. “Even though we were dealing with historical material, there was never a sense it was clouding the romantic story.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Amma Asante's 'Belle' (2013) © DJ Films / DR / Alamy

As well as illustrating Britain’s role in the slave trade, the film is an “ode to the paternal relationship”, Asante says. Her father died while she was finishing it, and she would leave the editing suite to spend the night at his sick bed. “You watch… and it’s exhausting. You’re constantly anticipating what that moment is going to be like, how you will feel.” Witnessing her father’s descent elicited a sort of magical thinking. “You think somehow you’ll bypass it. You’ll be the one that doesn’t have to lose their parent. There was part of me that just thought, ‘God, if I really cry hard enough, he will start breathing again.’”

Yet she also has happier associations with the film; it led to an introduction to Prince, who threw her a party after the film’s UK premiere. Later he invited her to Paisley Park, his recording studios in Minneapolis. She looks down as she talks about her encounter with the musician, who died in April this year, referring to him in the present tense. “Everybody knows he’s a wonderful artist, everybody knows he’s a wonderful musician but… he takes the situation away from one of awe when you’re sitting in front of Prince, to one where you’re just having creative discussions.”

A United Kingdom, released in the UK later this month, is set in postwar Britain and in Botswana, and stars David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams. Oyelowo has been a friend of Asante’s for 18 years and is now based in the US. “Her female characters don’t get short shrift,” he tells me over the phone. “She recognises that the black point of view has been sidelined. History is told by the victors. Belle reminds us there was a black presence in Britain. I’m thirsty to have representations of people of colour. I’ve seen plenty of negative representation, of slavery, of subjugation. I know Africans are princes as well as paupers.”

The film follows Khama, a prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), as he meets Williams, an office clerk, at a missionary-society mixer in dingy 1940s London. The couple’s subsequent marriage and decision to return to Bechuanaland, then a British protectorate, triggered a series of political and personal explosions: first, among Khama’s subjects, who did not want a white foreigner ruling them; then in neighbouring South Africa, whose white-minority Nationalist party had just outlawed mixed marriages under the new apartheid system. In turn, the British government kicked up a diplomatic fuss, fearing South Africa would deny it uranium (key to the British nuclear programme) and gold (to replenish postwar reserves). The interracial relationship also angered Williams’s father. 

Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams and David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama in A United Kingdom © Pathe

Telling the story of a politician’s romantic life, particularly one that, at times, seems bathed in warm golden hues, inevitably lays the film-maker open to accusations of idealised gloss. Asante meets the charge head-on. “There will always be another side to the story. There’s nothing to stop another film-maker telling their story.” She likens her portrayal of Khama to her view of her father who, as she grew up, slid off his pedestal. “I remember actively making the decision that I can either keep [my father] my hero or not. It’s my choice. And that’s what I decided to do.” It was important to Asante to create not just a “love story” but also to show “positive African leaders that we never really get a chance to see on screen”.

Before she starts filming any project, Asante writes down a few words, summing up the message or emotions she wants the stories to convey. For A United Kingdom, it was “love, courage and tenacity”. I tell her that tenacity stood out for me: I doubt I would have stuck by Khama in his wife’s place. Despite Asante’s gushing about her husband (“My heart beats because it beats alongside his”, she tells me), she admits the same: “I don’t know if I could have stood up to that power, that pressure, that force.”

The sense of nationhood and pride portrayed in the film suffused her family home. Alongside the romance, the script interweaves the story of a country’s journey to independence; something that Asante had thought a lot about. “My mum and dad were raised in a colony, they saw it become independent,” she says. “I really did know intimately what that meant to them and I learnt what that meant to their country.” 

Asante’s reputation today means that she can choose to work on the projects she is passionate about, but she remains frustrated by inequality in the broader industry. There is still some reluctance among financiers, she says, to allow women “to fly a plane”. It is male directors who receive the most investment, she notes, from the initial film funding to its promotion. “We’re not playing on a level playing field, because we’re supposed to [make] the same [at the] box office but are we getting the same backing marketing-wise?” 

The industry has been allowed to “become comfortable”, she adds. “It’s come from a preference of men… I think that that preference isn’t just men preferring men; I think sometimes women prefer men as well.”

That is slowly changing, she believes, in part because industry bodies are collecting data on the number of women and ethnic minorities in the business. A report published earlier this year by Directors UK, a body for film and TV professionals, showed that UK films are six times more likely to be directed by a man than a woman — a multiple that increases in tandem with the budget. 

“For women overall, opportunities are thin and, within that, opportunities for women of colour are basically non-existent. It’s an industry that is starving itself of a valuable lifeblood and valuable contributions,” Asante says. 

Her own experience illustrates that there are commercial opportunities in diverse viewpoints, and gives her hope that financial incentives may prove persuasive to producers, even if they don’t recognise the arguments around inequality. “Black stories, female stories have shown they can speak to audiences and make money... In the end, choosing to remedy it isn’t about what’s right or moral, necessarily — there are good business reasons to offer cinema audiences a choice at the box office.” 

Just before she is about to return to her hotel before an evening gala, Asante pauses. She wants to be sure that she has made her point: the importance of telling women’s ­stories. “Our gaze is valuable and important and it’s, most importantly, entertaining. It’s just as entertaining as any man’s.”

Emma Jacobs is an FT features writer. “A United Kingdom” is released in the UK on November 25 

Photographs: Peter Watkins; Alamy; Pathe

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