Amma Asante is drinking tea – “If you have PG Tips, all the better,” she calls to the retreating waiter – in the plush quietness and gleaming surfaces of London’s Cafe Royal. Despite traffic jams and torrential rain, she is impeccably calm, certainly calmer than many film-makers would be had their latest production been selected to open this year’s London film festival. But Asante, whose previous films A Way of Life and Belle garnered her high praise and multiple awards, including a Bafta, is clearly a star in the making – and possibly also a star-maker; Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whom she cast in her breakthrough part as the title character in Belle, has just appeared opposite Matthew McConaughey in the American civil war drama Free State of Jones. Earlier this year Asante was also invited to become a member of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has had its biggest ever intake of new members following intense criticism over the lack of racial diversity in Oscar nominees. In joining a Hollywood club with a decades-long reputation for being largely white, male and aged over 50, she’ll now have voting rights on the Oscars, and a part to play in steering the industry and what comes to our screens in the future.
For the moment, though, she’s concentrating on A United Kingdom, which had an unexpected – and even inconvenient – genesis. About 18 months ago, Asante was about to move not only home but also country, quitting the Netherlands, where she had lived for eight years, in favour of Denmark, where her husband is from. Amid all the upheaval and readjustment the phone rang. At the other end was actor David Oyelowo, whom Asante had known since they worked together on the BBC drama Brothers and Sisters back in 1998. Oyelowo, fresh from playing Martin Luther King in Selma, wanted to persuade her to be part of an idea whose moment had come – “a labour of love”, as he described it.
The project was to film the life of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, the first prime minister of Botswana and his wife, an office clerk from Eltham. Their marriage, in 1948, when Botswana was still the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, had immense ramifications, both personal and political: Khama, who had met Williams at a missionary society dance in London, had been supposed to return from his stint at Balliol College, Oxford and subsequent studies for the bar to take up the kingship of the Bamangwato people. He was not supposed to return with a white, English bride, and particularly not just as neighbouring South Africa had made interracial marriage illegal under the apartheid system; her arrival angered both Bamangwato chiefs and many who couldn’t believe that their future leader would choose an outsider above a local. Ruth Williams’s family also opposed the marriage, and there was vehement objection from the British government, enraged by what they saw as a dangerous misstep in managing regional relationships.
Oyelowo had first come across Susan Williams’s book Colour Bar, on which the film is based, in 2010, through producers Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason, who had acquired the rights. Since then, the three had struggled to get the project, with Oyelowo playing Khama, off the ground. But the story of Khama, Williams and Bechuanaland’s gradual journey towards independence immediately struck a chord with Asante, fresh from her success with the recently released Belle, which also drew on a complex piece of history to explore relationships across racial divides. Her father, she tells me, was a pan-African, a man who believed in a united states of Africa. “He grew up in Ghana when it was still the Gold Coast; grew up, as my mother did, as the child of a colony, and watched it become independent. And Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to gain its independence, so we always lived with that badge on our chest; I was always raised knowing that was the country that I came from. I grew up being able to repeat – at seven or eight years old — the speeches of Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first president of Ghana.”
Consequently, she explains, she was gripped not only by the fierceness and endurance of the romantic relationship at the heart of the story, but also by the intricacy and subtleties of its sociopolitical setting. Reading her way through Williams’s book – it’s brilliant, she says, but so dense with complex detail that she could only read 18 pages a day – she realised that she wanted to explore how Khama came to a point where he could contemplate utterly changing the political landscape of his country. “Even though I didn’t know the story,” she remarks, “I was very aware of the young, privileged men of Africa who moved through the UK in the 1940s, who were sent to be educated. I knew it because the women weren’t.”
What she didn’t want, she explains, was to privilege one aspect of the drama over the other. And neither did she think it was necessary: “You could create a very political backdrop against the love story. Because, really, what is interesting about being a black man married to a white woman today? Yes, in certain quarters, it’s still difficult and there is still a taboo. But it’s not that interesting – why pick them, as opposed to any other interracial couple? What’s really interesting is what happened once this couple chose to fall in love, the period in which they fell in love, which was right as South Africa was about to enshrine apartheid into its laws, and the fallout that occurs.”
She notes – while also acknowledging the earlier film’s vital importance at the time – that A United Kingdom is not a rerun of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 1967 film in which a black man played by Sidney Poitier courts a white woman, to the consternation of her parents. Rather, she says, she had to find those things in the story that would resonate with contemporary issues. Among those is the issue of transition and identity. One facet of the story she focused on explores the idea that someone might be sent away at a formative age to experience life and education in another country and yet still be expected to return essentially unaltered; it also shows those at home, inching their way towards establishing nationhood in the face of societal change.
I tell her that I was struck by the numerous interwoven stories of restriction and emancipation, and the different weight that history accorded them. Near the start of Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s film, Khama and his wife, played by Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, return to Bechuanaland and are met with hostility, despite his previous popularity; he determines to address the kgotla – a public meeting – and put his case. Scores of Bamangwato men, many of them dressed in suits, walk from their villages to attend, but there is barely a woman to be seen. Asante nods: she dotted a few around the edges, she remembers, as if to suggest that they couldn’t help themselves from coming to listen, but there was a firm message that politics was not for women.
And yet she knew that she had to represent the view of Bamangwato women. “When I first came to the script, the point of view of the black female wasn’t really there, and it was very important,” she says. “I thought about my mother, I thought about my aunts; my mother was born and raised in a very rural village, but her brother is a chief. And the idea that he should go abroad and return, even with someone of the same colour but who was an outsider, and say, this is going to be your queen, I just imagined what their response would be. And there you have it, in the film.”
Asante has had a lifetime of considering the nuances that attach themselves to the questions of identity and power informing her work. Now 47, she reckons that she is in a position to empower two sides of her identity – her Ghanaian heritage and her British upbringing – to be in dialogue with one another. “I allow that conversation to happen, and it’s a pleasure,” she explains. “And I don’t know what side I’ll come out on each day, or what decision I’ll come out with on each day, but it is a dynamic rather than a conflict.”
Is she able to put into words what characterises these different parts of her? She mentions her pride in the traditions of her parents’ Ghanaian background, and of how important it is to her to be able to speak their language. “And yet, the very British side of me, who is the child of immigrants, is the side of me that welcomes outsiders – the modern British side, that is – and enjoys crossing boundaries and sharing boundaries and being open to what an outsider might bring. But I’m still deeply protective of my traditions at the same time.” (Amusingly, as we both ponder the miniature glass cloche covering the miniature biscuit that has accompanied tea, she puts her mild aversion to elaborate service down to her British “side”.)
She grew up in Streatham, which she describes, in the early 1980s and beyond, as “a pretty racist environment” – complete with graffiti on the walls and lit matches pushed through the letterbox. “That was just a way of life,” she says now, inadvertently making reference to the title of her first feature film, “but I was aware of the stress it put my parents through.” Her accountant father’s response was to tell his family that there was one thing they had to remember at all times: “Know that you are loved.”
Fascinatingly, these exact words recur as a line in Belle (2013), the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the child of a British admiral and an African slave, who was brought to England by her father and left in the care of her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield; they are the words spoken to her by her father, whom she only knows for a few hours, as he bids her farewell. Even more poignantly, Asante’s father died during the filming of Belle, and she talks movingly about his impact on her work. She will always, she thinks, create benevolent fathers who are also flawed; hers, whom she describes as her hero, “made mistakes, but when he got it right, he got it really right”.
Belle grew up in Kenwood House in Hampstead, surrounded by great material privilege and familial love, but simultaneously excluded from vast swaths of society by the colour of her skin. As in A United Kingdom, there is a love story; but there is also a highly involved narrative that chronicles the changing legal position of slave cargo – at heart, the degree to which slaves being transported at sea were regarded as human beings rather than mere possessions, to be jettisoned at the drop of a hat. Both elements of the film unite to portray a mixed-race woman growing in self-recognition and self-possession, and balancing the different claims made on her loyalties.
Both movies also imply that a key moment in the journey towards selfhood is the acceptance that individuals contain multitudes. As a child, Asante began to act, and joined the cast of Grange Hill; she was part of the “Just Say No” campaign, and was one of nine cast members to visit Ronald Reagan’s White House. But she would also develop lines to use in her off-screen life; for instance, she always used to reply “Ghana” when asked where she was from, because “Streatham” seemed to cause confusion of the “No, where are you really from?” variety. “So that became too complex,” she recalls, “and also it was a big fat rejection, because I actually felt as British as anybody else but I would constantly be reminded that I wasn’t. And so it was easier to just say African.”
But things changed somewhat when her debut, A Way of Life, was released. Set in Wales, the film tells the story of a young, single mother fighting extreme disadvantage, and also of her Turkish, Muslim neighbour. It started to get a little attention, and “quite often I would read about myself, and it would be, ‘young British film-maker’. And when you see words written about you, they’re very powerful.” Did she feel that, in a sense, she was being claimed? Yes, she replies, “but there was a sense of, well, that’s what I’ve been saying all along, but haven’t been allowed to say. But that’s exactly what I am. I’m a young British director.”
We talk more broadly about the issues of migration and the resistance to it that are bedevilling the world at the moment. Asante locates in much of the fear that surrounds the conversation an interesting insight into entitlement. “I often think about what we might look back at in 100 or 200 years’ time from now and see as really…” – she grasps for the word – “primitive. Because we fear, we really believe, there isn’t enough to share, and there really isn’t enough to go around, because that’s a narrative that we’re given. But that’s because we’ve decided that certain boundaries should exist and must exist, and you should stay over there, because the world over there is created for you, and the world over here is created for us. Well, that’s never worked.”
At the time, she points out, change is always complicated, and when it happens too quickly, can be problematic. “You can’t have a country of fearful people,” she says, and in A United Kingdom, she is understanding of the competing demands on the Attlee and Churchill governments, both of which adopted problematic stances towards Bechuanaland as they sought to rebuild postwar British society. And yet, as she also says and the film makes clear, there was a good outcome: Seretse Khama took his country towards independence and democratic representation, and there it remains. She has already been criticised, she says, for making too much of a crowd-pleaser, to which she retorts that she can’t change history. But does she think that underlying that attitude is an unfamiliarity, perhaps even tantamount to disbelief, with the business of telling an African success story?
She nods vigorously. “There was an argument over whether we should show some of the more beautiful images that we have in the film of Africa. This is why you need a person of colour at the table. Because I said, why not? That’s the Africa I know. Hundreds of thousands of people travel to Botswana every single year to go and see the animal life there. Why would we pretend that that doesn’t exist? Why wouldn’t we show the beautiful sunsets? I remember waking up in my mother’s African village to beautiful sunrises and beautiful sunsets.
“We’re so used to seeing flies in African children’s faces, we’re so used to seeing what I call a degraded Africa, that does not have a person of colour at the centre of their own story – they’re usually a supporting character who’s an observer of their own story – that sometimes I think that when you see it told a different way, which means that you take a character like Rosamund Pike played in Ruth and flip the switch and make her the other, then it makes some people feel uncomfortable. Your expectations are disrupted. And I believe that’s what I’m here for. I hold that flag.”
Asante is full of praise for Pike, who came to film after Gone Girl, and immediately embraced the no-makeup, frizzy hair and sensible shoes look that her character adopted when she moved to Botswana (there are rather more swinging skirts with nipped-in waists at the jazz clubs that feature in the film’s London scenes). “To me, she embodied the courage that I imagined Ruth had,” she says. Particularly impressive was Pike’s insistence that she would simply drop to the ground during a scene in which Williams, suffering from diphtheria, collapses on a dusty road. Asante, worried about the numerous rocks in the path, had had sleepless nights wondering how they could conceal a mattress, but had to content herself with setting the crew to remove as many stones as they could. When one of Khama and Williams’s sons visited the set, he delivered the ultimate imprimatur: “It’s not every day you see your mother and father come back to life.”
Next, Asante is going to tackle the Nazis. Where Hands Touch, which she has written herself, will start filming in October, with The Hunger Games’sAmandla Stenberg and Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay starring as a teenage couple facing the not inconsiderable obstacle of his membership of the Hitler Youth and the fact that she is a mixed-race girl living in the Third Reich. Once again, issues of identity play an integral part, as does Asante’s abiding interest in capturing social and political structures at the moment where they begin to fall apart.
We conclude by talking about broader issues of representation within the film industry, and specifically in the context of her recent membership of the Academy. How effective does she feel that development will be in promoting change and inclusion in the entertainment business? It is, she says, a “substantial and relevant” move, and she commends the Academy for doing it. But she remains realistic: “When you’re in it, it seems slow and it feels slow. When we look back in 100 years, who knows how it will look with hindsight. However, it does feel like we’re turning a corner. It’s not a short corner, it’s a very big bend, and we’re some way around it and we’ve still got a long way to go. Let’s be really honest about this: the Oscars reflect the industry, so the Oscars can change but they can only do so much without the industry changing as well.”
In other words the movies need to get made in the first place, so that audiences are not presented with eight identical films when they go to the multiplex. Cinemagoers, too, can play their part, choosing to see a more diverse range of films as they are released, and not necessarily waiting until they come out on DVD.
“It’s really interesting, “she continues, “that if you walk into an industry party and it’s predominantly male, predominantly of a certain age, predominantly white, it starts to feel old-fashioned. It doesn’t feel progressive. When you walk into a place and you see women, and you see people of colour, and varying abilities and disabilities, it feels like it’s somehow a reflection of the world – you’re in the world, and that we’re in a relevant industry.” She laughs, remembering her recent trip to a vibrant Toronto. “That didn’t mean to say that the lovely old white men were gone. They were still there!”
The bottom line, she thinks, is that the industry needs to see a broadening of the wares as a business opportunity, not merely as a matter of morality: “If you do not have a flourish of new lifeblood,” she says, “you don’t get a beautiful ocean, you get a dull, dank puddle.”