Why you should care

Because the woman who just shot the film of the year in seven weeks for $10 million is one to watch. 

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On a February night in New York, a crowd of 400 gathered at the Athena Film Festival at Barnard College for a sneak preview of Belle, the true story of Dido Belle Lindsay, a black aristocratic Englishwoman who lived in the 18th century. As the end credits rolled, the audience, which ran the gamut from Afro-Latino college students to middle-aged Caucasians, erupted into foot-stomping applause. They’d just witnessed an unusual phenomenon in cinema: a period piece with a black female lead that involved neither her servitude nor the unholy trinity of family pathologies: “drinkin’, beatin’ and incest.”

The movie — based on a screenplay by Misan Sagay — won top honors at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.

I wanted to prove that you could do a Jane Austen-style period romance with a black woman as lead.

- Amma Asante

Film critic Justin Chang, writing in Variety, praised the film’s “polished craftsmanship and disarming comedy-of-manners approach.”

Belle, premiering in the U.S. on May 2, weaves the story of a free mulatto’s coming of age with her involvement in a seminal anti-slavery case, over which her great uncle, Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of England, presided. The visionary behind the film, 44-year-old Afro-British director Amma Asante, took the stage in New York, wearing a sleeveless black Vivienne Westwood cocktail dress that hugged her slender figure, her hair swept up in a French twist. Speaking with a South London accent, she declared, “I wanted to prove that you could do a Jane Austen-style period romance with a black woman as lead.”

2 women in pink and blue in period costumes sitting at a piano

A scene from the movie “Belle”.

With the momentum generated by this film, Asante is poised to shake things up and break down the barriers of race and sex both behind and in front of the camera, opening Hollywood to integrated films centered on strong female characters. Up next for her already is a 1940s romantic story — about a mixed-race female protagonist and a German SS officer.

And in an industry where only two of the top box-office films of 2013 were directed by women, Asante has already been tapped to direct an action adventure for Warner Brothers.

“My father tried to always teach me that there was nowhere I didn’t belong, nowhere I didn’t deserve to be, but it took a while to come into that,“ Asante admits, speaking via phone from her home in the Netherlands.

Born in London to Ghanaian immigrants, an accountant father and a mother who did housecleaning and ran the family-owned African deli, Asante grew up in Margaret Thatcher’s less-than-united “kingdom.”

“My mum was spat on in the street,” she recalls. The close-knit clan — which included Asante’s older brother and sister — was one of just two families on their street to own their home. “I‎ never felt like I fit in anywhere. I would go home every couple of years to Ghana and I was always too English. In the U.K., I very definitely was not deemed as British,” she explains. This theme of displacement courses through her work.

[Asante] knew this character so deeply. All the relationships in the story were personal to her.

— Gugu Mbatha-Raw, lead actor in Belle

Then, at 10, young Amma found herself at the Barbara Speake Stage School, where her father enrolled her after a teacher refused to let his daughter perform in a dance recital called “Blue Eyes” because her eyes weren’t blue. “My father brought me the career I have today,” Asante says. According to her sister, Abena, their father’s encouragement helped Amma embrace her “shyness and fluctuating confidence” as “wise companions to her enduring courage.”

As a teenager, Amma was cast in a runaway television hit of the era, Grange Hill, a high school dramedy. Once out of adolescence, however, roles grew scarce. “There were still few black people onscreen. I really was going up for the maids,” she recalls.

Thinking perhaps that acting was not her path, she resigned from her agency and, seeing no obvious road ahead, signed up for a secretarial course.

Trying to increase her typing speed, she spent endless hours tapping away, but boosting her words per minute was not the only thing occupying her. “I had a story in my head,” she remembers. That typing exercise became a treatment that eventually led to a development deal at the BBC, and later, an acclaimed series, Brothers and Sisters, about an immigrant family, which she both wrote and produced. That in turn attracted the attention of a producer from ITV-Wales, who gave Asante carte blanche to develop and direct a film. In A Way of Life, Asante delved into her theme of the outsider, this time viewing it through the lens of an impoverished single white teenage mother from the ghetto.

Asante’s film A Way of Life won 17 awards, including BAFTA’s Carl Foreman Award for a debut by a director and the Times of London’s Breakthrough Artist of the Year.‎

Shifting from the present-day slums of Cardiff to the rarified air of a Georgian drawing room may seem an impossible leap, but Damian Jones (a veteran producer who worked on The Iron Lady) had his mind set on Asante, whom he knew from the tight-knit U.K. film community, for the project.

2 women in period clothing on left with Amma, African American woman, standing to the right

Amma speaking to actors during a scene in Belle

Raising money for a period film with a black lead and a black female director was a challenge, but according to Jones, “There was an appetite for Amma and the subject.”

They were able to assemble a top-flight cast that includes two Oscar nominees, Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson, and potential breakout star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Belle. “She knew this character so deeply,” says Mbatha-Raw of her director. ”All the relationships in the story were personal to her.”

Shooting the film took only seven weeks — with Asante sporting her trademark high heels the entire time, recalls Jones — for a relatively paltry $10 million. Jones credits Asante with making the film relevant, rather than a taste of pickled England.

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