Today we’re continuing our series of #WomenWednesdays spotlights throughout #BlackHistoryMonth, by celebrating the formidable career of Amma Asante! This Black British director was born to Ghanaian parents, and grew up in Streatham, South London in the 1980s. She is the most high-profile black British female director currently working in the industry, and has forged a unique and meaningful filmmaking career since the early 2000s, which led her to be awarded with an MBE in 2017.
Image credits © DiscussingFilm
Growing up during the era of the Brixton riot, the openly hostile and discriminative behaviour towards her throughout her adolescence gave Asante the inspiration for her debut feature film ‘A Way of Life’; a social realist production which details the life of a single teen mother Leigh-Anne, as she struggles to stay afloat in the difficult world of crime, bigotry and poverty that she finds herself caught up in. This bold and at times unsettling debut won Asante the Carl Foreman Award for special achievement by a filmmaker in their first feature, at the 2005 BAFTA awards. Speaking about her personal connection with the film’s story and characters, Asante said:
What I identified with in Leigh-Anne was the sense of isolation, although I was more the Julie character in the film, and Hassan was definitely my dad. We were one of two black families living in a predominantly white street. I felt really isolated. I wanted to be part of everybody else’s lives, I wanted to play out like the other kids. The Hassan character really came from the fact that my dad has dignity – he used to get matches through the letter box and things like that.
Image credits © Amma Asante
Despite the huge success and acclaim of Asante’s debut, it would be nearly 10 years before she helmed another feature film. Asante has spoken frankly about the reason behind this unusual hiatus in her career, citing a lack of opportunity for female and ethnic minority filmmakers in the industry. She has fought hard to counter the industry’s cycle of exclusivity, and had this to say to Edith Bowman during a BAFTA masterclass:
We have got to keep pushing hard and changing, and one of the ways in which I do it, although it does frustrate me, is that for each film that I’m in control of, I ensure that I have at least one emerging female filmmaker shadowing me on that film. On my last film [‘Where Hands Touch’], as most people know, I had four.
Image credits © PRI
When Asante did return to directing, it was with the period romantic drama ‘Belle’ in 2013, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the historical Black aristocrat Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay. Next to nothing is known about the real life of this elusive historical figure, as she was born in the West Indies as the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of powerful and influential British aristocrats. Asante said she was drawn to the story because of the contrasts between the quaint, elite and genteel world of aristocracy that Belle moved in, and the inhuman atrocities of slavery that were being carried out under British rule at the same time. Asante spoke about the affinity she felt towards Belle, as the character at the center of these historical contradictions:
Although I’m not bi-racial, I’m bi-cultural, I walk that division every day subtly and unsubtly, consciously and unconsciously. I am that familiar and unfamiliar character in the world.
Image credits © Black Women Directors
Asante’s courage, perseverance and vision are an inspiration to aspiring filmmakers, and she had this to say to creatives trying to find their voice in an industry, and a cultural environment, where external criticism and judgement is rife:
There are some people saying on social media ‘Who asked for this?’ And I am like, I am not McDonalds. This is not a drive-in and you don’t get what you order. As an artist, your job is to challenge yourself as well as putting something out there that is hopefully something challenging to the culture and to the society. If you are only giving people what they are asking for, it is going to be derivative to a certain extent.
Image credits © The Guardian
We can’t wait to see what this trailblazing storyteller does next in her unique career path! We’ll see you back here on our LFA blog next week, for our next #WomenWednesdays throughout #BlackHistoryMonth. Don’t forget to share this post on social media, or email it to a friend to keep the conversation going.