Director Amma Asante’s “Belle” hit theaters this weekend.
The Source Magazine had the opportunity to discuss the film in depth with Asante. Read our exclusive chat below:
What struck you about the painting?
Amma: It came to me in the context of this gallery expedition I had been to in Amsterdam. I had seen that we, people of color, were during that period really treated as accessories in a painting – in there to express the status of the main focus of the painting and we were very much like pets. Low down and never looking at the painter. Really in a subservient position all the time in these paintings and so when Damian Jones, a year later, sent me the picture postcard painting of the painting. It came to me in a context that was important because I realized how different it is. I wanted to take you, the audience, through that process that I went through of seeing the context within which the painting comes in and that’s why you see it … you see all those different versions of other paintings at the time before you get the reveal of her in her painting. I thought, “Here is a great opportunity if I get this right to be able to create a story that combines politics, art, and history. That felt good. That got my bones going and so it just simply inspired me. It inspired me to get digging straight away. To get to researching, researching, researching. For me, it was about working out how these characters were going to be built, how the plot lines were going to be built, how the story was going to be told. What did I want to focus on? What were the themes that I wanted to explore. I knew that I wanted to tell an intwined story that was going to be, you know, what I love are stories that are simple on the surface and complex when you start to strip the layers, so on the surface it was going to be this simple love story and then maybe a triangular story with the father in a forbidden love a little bit. All of that but actually this is a story, the third love story of the girl who has to come to love herself, who has to come to love all that she is and that’s why she says, at the end of the film, when she comes to John with her love, she says, “With all that I am, with all that I am, I love you,” because she’s now come to a point where she is happy with a combination of all of those things that she is and I realize there was this opportunity for me to really be able to tell the story and make the film of my dreams.
Q: Can you tell me what made Gugu Mbatha-Raw special when you saw her? She said she’d been holding on to it for seven years in the back of her mind she wanted to play Dido Elizabeth.
Amma: It was in the front of her mind that she wanted to play Dido. Well, I had met Gugu several years before. She had come up for a part for a movie that I had written and again was directing and was I’m going to shoot it now in 2015. It didn’t happen at the time, but it is going to be shot in Berlin and I needed a biracial young woman for this movie again to play the lead and so I had met her there. She read for me. She has a presence. She’s very extraordinary to talk to and also clearly to look at. I knew I wanted Dido to be beautiful, but I also wanted her to have a quality which was both familiar and unfamiliar to us. Where we recognized her, but hadn’t quite seen her in this way before and I said it so many times, but she has this sense of grace which was relevant to the period, necessary to her class and status in the movie and totally right for this neoclassical Georgian world. She fit in, but yet, as I say, in a way we hadn’t seen before. She was the right person. She was the only person.
Q: There is also a fascinating legal story in the backdrop of the love story.
Amma: Well, when I talk about deciding what kind of themes I wanted to explore, what I wanted to do was I specifically wanted to utilize and make the painting and the court case in the story tools for which Dido could explore herself, her self development, her journey coming from a place where you could be all these different things but be happy with herself. And to experience a political awakening. Dido is not naive. She simply, at the beginning of the film, lacks information because information has been kept from her and so she is aware of the existence of slaves but not all of the details that pertain to it. Once she gets this information from John, the scales are able to fall from her eyes and she gets information, she’s able to explore that enough to the point where it brings her to a place of political awakening. Whilst I’m telling the micro-story of Dido’s journey of self- discovery, I’m also telling the macro-story if you like of this case that kind of changed the world we live in because what happened in England affected what happens in America because of the period and so it’s a history that affects all of us and in doing my research and deciding what kind of story I wanted to tell, what I was very aware of and what we all know is within the context of the slave trade, you could make money selling human beings. Right, we know that, but what I couldn’t get to grips with in my head was this idea that you could make money on killing them, insuring them simply so that they could be killed and you could claim the insurance money because they got sick because basically what happened was with the Zong was the captain was an inexperienced captain, he was actually a doctor. He was given the opportunity to be the captain on the ship. He missed the points on the route he should have taken so it was a long protracted journey. It meant that the slaves who were packed in the most disgusting way became even more sick than they actually would have. They say you can smell a slave ship from a mile down wind of it because it was such a disgusting environment to be in and many of the white people on the ship who worked on the ship never came home. They died because of disease, but this made disease even worse and when they realized that they would not make money on the open market for these slaves that they should have been able to according to the lifestyle they lead. They decided to kill them for insurance money … what this spoke to for me was the value of human beings, the value on the macro-level, the value of all of us human beings and on the micro-level, the value of Dido’s self value and the value that she has within her world and her family. I wanted to constantly parallel those two worlds. I wanted to draw them alongside each other for the entire movie. I wanted to create that. That’s not easy.
Q: John Davinier makes that point when he speaks with Lord Mansfield. He implies that Dido could have very well been on that ship.
Amma: Yeah it could have been them, but also he’s a loose cannon as well. It’s easy to like John from the get go if you like because he’s the moral reminder in the story. He’s the guy who’s morally reminding everybody to do the right thing but he’s judgmental. He is waving the flag for people marginalized, right but he’s not a black woman living in that world. He’s never walked in her shoes. You know, he’s asking her these questions … I have him asking the question, “What don’t you dine with your family? I’ve seen you twice over and you don’t dine with your family.” Excuse me, why don’t you say anything? She’s a woman in 1783 for a start and then she’s a black woman in 1783 and she’s a young woman. She’s an eighteen year old girl. Like if you haven’t walked in those shoes. So, I think what she brings to him is a human understanding of the experience, not just a concept of marginalized people, but a concept of something more real, what Lord Mansfield brings to him is the concept that sometimes you have to be in the game to change the game. Being a passionate revolutionary, loose cannon. We need those people. It’s important, but you need both sides of the coin and sometimes you have to be in the game to change the game and so, what I always want with my movies and my stories is that every relationship is two way. Each character brings something to the other. There is never a one way relationship where it’s all about John bringing to Lord Mansfield or it’s all about John bringing to Dido but he has to learn something and every character that has a journey in the story has to learn something. That was my job.
Q: Can you tell me about casting Tom for Lord Mansfield and collaborating with him?
Amma: Tom is awesome and he was my first choice. He was my muse during my development period on the movie of putting the story together and he reminds me of my father in some ways, but also so does Lord Mansfield because they were very similar. They were both sort of conflicted and kind of contradictions of each other in that they were both steeped in the rules, men of their time, but also very much had a foot in progression and being very progressive and I thought that Tom Wilkinson could express that really brilliantly well because again, we see the macro and the micro, we see the judge. You know, the big judge, the highest judge in the land second only to the King in power. We also see the father, the man who all he’s trying to do is navigate his daughters’ upbringing and a father that that many men today could identify with. It’s not easy bringing up a girl. It’s not easy bringing up a young woman, a teenager, a woman who’s going into her twenties and I wanted you to see him as just the man. I wanted him to be the judge, but I also wanted him to be the husband and the father. Just simply the man and that’s why you see him without his wig on quite often. Not just his judges wig but his formal kind of ponytail wig.
Casting him was easy in terms of choice because he was my muse through my development period on the project but I sent him the script, the story as I wanted to tell it, and I prayed that he would say yes and when he did. We cast Gugu first and then we had to build everybody around her and then when we did, I knew I had a film and I knew that him being on the story would attract the other great names to the story that I loved and very much wanted to be were first choices to me as well and working with him was a joy. He’s a funny man. He’s very experienced. He’s one of our very most beloved thespians in Britain, but he’s very known in Hollywood as well which is great and he’s a very loving father in his on rite of daughters. When my father died during the making of the film, I had to shoot the next day with Tom and he was a great strength to me at the time and you know, that next day, and you know, really helped me get through the day and I just feel blessed that he said yes to my story and that he graced us with his amazing skill, frankly.
Q: Is there a favorite scene you would like to highlight?
Amma: The moment where Lord Mansfield and Lady Mansfield were talking and she is reminding him of who he is or perhaps opening his eyes to who he is. That he is much more like John than he might want to acknowledge and Lady Mansfield says to him, “Do you love her?” and he says that she were born of you and me. You know, I cried when I put that scene down on paper and I cried when we shot it and it makes me weepy now when I think about it now because it’s a true love. It’s a true paternal love story, paternal, maternal, and then you have the separate romantic love story and I wanted to show a black child being loved on the screen very, very much and I think that moment kind of encapsulates that even though she’s not there, she’s very much there by not being there. You know, she’s very much in the conversation.
Q: Can you speak about the authenticity of the period and just bringing that to life.
Amma: My heads of department are always control freaks because that’s who I like to bring on board to collaborate with me. I’m a control freak but I figure that if I can have a couple more control freaks with me, then that makes then it’ll all be in control. So, Simon Bowles, the wonderful, gorgeous, adorable Simon Bowles, my production designer is anal in his requirements for details. He’s obsessive for detail, of the correct detail of the period. He wouldn’t let me get away with anything so, I had a color chart. I had a mood board. He adapted his skills to my vision in creating the world that I wanted to create along with Ben Smithard the DP. They were very good about not deviating from my color scheme and what I needed. What I wanted was an arrestingly peaceful movie. That’s what I wanted to create and that was their brief from the beginning and I had an inspiration board as well. We would add to that inspiration board. We’d keep throwing stuff to it and we had a color scheme also for each of the families and the characters, so for the Ashford family, it was a kind of cold, icy blue was their color scheme. For the Mansfield family, it’s kind of warm but also wealthy gold, yellow.
For me I wanted to reflect the interior journey of the characters in the exterior. So, in the beginning, the ceilings are high. We used pastel colors, ice cream colors, pastel pinks, pastel blues, very gentle colors and the girls are like dolls in a doll’s house, in a giant doll’s house almost and that’s while they’re naive and they’re young. I’d say that they’re young and they haven’t quite experienced the world yet as they move towards London, the world becomes more sophisticated and they’re in the smaller townhouse, so we’re using dark woods, the colors become deeper and more sophisticated. Kind of like emerald greens and midnight blues and deep colors and the girls’ world becomes smaller because now the ceilings are lower, the rooms are smaller, but they’re filling their world up. They’re growing within their world and their discovering life and the harsh realities of life but also some of the good things like how to make the right choices in life, so, it was about reflecting not just the period world but also the emotional world of the characters through production design and the way we shot the film as well.