Amma Asante's "Belle"
Amma Asante's "Belle"

There's nothing quite like Belle on the contemporary film scene -- a luxurious period film and a sweet, gentle romance that wears its keenly insightful politics on its silk sleeves. Belle is the sophomore feature from black British director Amma Asante, who was finally able to realize her decades-long wish to first star in, and later write and make, a Jane Austen-esque period film when she came across a portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an 18th-century half-African, half-British historical noblewoman. 

The following is the first of two interviews we'll publish on Women and Hollywood with Asante; the next half will run tomorrow. Though the film's interlocking themes of race, gender, and class make those themes difficult to pry apart, the first-parter focuses more on gender, love, and the origins of the film, and the second-partner on race, history, and the fascinating behind-the-scenes details of period filmmaking.

Belle will be released in the US on May 2. 

How did you found Dido the real person?

I had been an actress in my childhood years and obsessed with period movies, but you never see a person of color in them unless they're a servant or a slave. I always wondered what it would be like to tell a story with a black female lead who wasn't a slave, and what it would be like to be in one of those stories. Then my career transitioned and I became a writer and director and I felt the same thing.

The British Film Institute (BFI), who have financed all my films, knew that I was obsessed with this 18th-century period. When [producer] Damian [Jones] came to them and said, "I really want to do a movie about this woman Dido," the BFI said to him, "You know, Amma is obsessed with the period. She's dying to make a Austenesque [film] that has a black lead."

But I had never found the story that I could hang my hook on. I had never found my window into an authentic way to tell this story, so when Damian came to them they put us together.

When I saw this postcard print of Dido -- which now hangs in Scone Palace and periodically comes back to hang in Kenwood House, where Dido was brought up  -- I looked at it and thought, "Wow. This is pretty incredible." I knew nothing really about her upbringing, why she was in the painting, why she was dressed as an aristocrat, why she was in silks wearing jewels, and why she looked as confident as she does. Obviously, I knew it was an 18th century painting and I knew, because of previous research I had done in art, that this painting was completely unusual.

From there I decided that I had to embark on some research and find out more about her.  The postcard just triggered a huge fascination and I had to start digging and digging and digging.

You mentioned before that you had previously been an actress in the early part of your career. Did you ever consider playing Dido yourself?

No, never. I'm in my 40s; Dido is about 20 in the story. That's the first thing. Secondly, I was never a very good actress. What acting did for me, really, was [serve as] a great introduction to writing and directing. It was really my way in understanding what my strengths were, but also what my passion is, which is writing and directing, and facilitating good performances. 

I also knew that Dido should be very easily identifiable as half black and half white, which I'm not. The fact that she's half black and half white was really important to the story for many reasons -- because Dido is kind of half of everything in the movie: she's the child of an aristocrat and she's the child of an African slave; she both has one foot in and one foot out.

It needed to be very clear throughout the story that she was as much white as she is black --- that she always looked mixed race. I [also] think it's really important [to show that] even though she's a woman color onscreen, this history belongs to all of us: it's both black history and white history. Dido very much belongs to all of us and she's about all of our history.

Portrait of Dido
Portrait of Dido

Why did you decide to go the route of the Austenesque romance to tell her story?

In so many ways, it's a romantic love story and it's a paternal love story as well. It's as much about her and [her surrogate father] Lord Mansfield, and also the fact that her biological father loved her as well.

It was much more practical in those days, if you had an illegitimate child of color, you could bring them into the household but had to keep them in the servant's quarters, and have them work with servants where they'd be safe but wouldn't be a full part of the family. The fact that her father decided that he didn't want her to be brought up that way and brought her to his uncle [Lord Mansfield] and said, "Love her as I would had I been here," was important to me.

When I did the research, it surprised me how many people had left Dido money in their will -- Lord Mansfield left her money in his will [and] Lady Mary, Lord Mansfield's sister, also left Dido in her will. The reality of it, then, was that so many people clearly [and] on paper showed their love for Dido that I thought it would have been disingenuous for me to tell a story purely about her suffering and a story that wasn't about her love.

She had great love. That she married John Davinier, that she was able to baptize all of her children with him in the same church that they married in, I found that that was very romantic and beautiful.

I also wanted to understand, or communicate to the audience, what kind of men would love Dido during this period. Lord Mansfield, who adopted her, and also John [her husband] -- what would make them so brave and so courageous enough to be able to love this woman of color during that period?

If I'm honest, I wanted to show a woman of color being loved. We don't see it that often. I wanted to change the conversation a little bit, change the dialogue a little bit -- we are loved, [and] we can be loved. Dido was valuable enough to be loved, she was worthy of being loved, and she was loved. Her challenge was showing people the right way to love her in the way that she needed to be.

How did you decide upon the interlocking structure of the race, gender, and class critiques? It was so smart and so touching to see how everyone was oppressed in particular ways.

The three subjects that you've mentioned -- race, gender, and class -- are quite important to me, and they also feature in my first movie [A Way of Life]. I was very taken with the idea of how race at the time paralleled in some way with the story of being a woman. You know, the reason it's tradition that women take their husband's last name is that back then the man owned his wife in the same way that he owned his horses and his slaves. The ownership issue was very much a big one for me.

She's not just wealthier than mainly all black people, if not all black people, during that period. She's also wealthier than most white people because most white people during that period were servants and peasants. When I looked at the painting, to me, this was a woman who was free twice over. As that thought came to me -- "Oh my God, she's both rich and she's not a slave" -- I [realized] this a story in which all of these things have to be entwined.

Did you ever worry that the characters might come across as maybe too modern?

No, I didn't worry that they would come across as too modern in the sense that the first thing financers ask you when you want to tell a story that's period or historical is, "Why now? Why is this story relevant today?" [They're] always looking for the answer to that question -- what the parallels are with today.

I didn't worry that they'd be too modern, but I did worry, for instance, about how I could ensure that Dido didn't come across as spoiled, or demanding: "How can I make sure that the audience will understand the Dido, this privileged woman who appeared to have a lot yet still appeared to be asking for more, how can I make it clear that she wasn't asking for more -- [that] she was actually asking for equality?"

When you were doing your historical research did you get any sense of Dido's personality? 

The feisty personality that you see as Dido's was very much a decision that I made at the very beginning of the project. I wanted Dido to be a character that goes from girl to woman, a character that goes from saying, "As you wish, sir" to one who says "As I wish," and somebody who definitely grows, so that when she stands her ground it doesn't come as a shock.

I studied the picture for a long time, and I still stare at the painting -- even today, I find myself staring at the painting. What I did glean from the painting, from the very moment Damian, the producer sent it, was that to me, she just looked so confident.

Generally in these paintings, the black character in the painting is never looking at the painter. They're always looking up at the white muse in the painting; they're always situated lower down in the painting and looking up in awe at the white main protagonist. They're very much like pets in the painting, background characters who are there to show the status of the white main muse.

When I looked at this painting of Dido, she looked so confident and strong. She's actually painted slightly higher than [her white surrogate sister] Elizabeth and she's looking directly at the painter, which is something you never see in these 18th century paintings where a person of color is painted next to a Caucasian person. The strength with which she looks back at us, and the confidence in which she's pointing to her own face and looking rather happy with herself -- I took that as strength. I took that as my landing place for her: where I wanted her to end the film as opposed to where I wanted her to start the film.

I also took from general history that a woman who had been brought up in such a household with a good education, relatively wealthy, wearing nice clothes and with a father who was very prominent and very high status, probably would've been pretty confident. Again, I didn't want to portray yet another female and yet another person of color onscreen as meek, mild, sad. I really wanted to present a character, a woman of color, who could speak up for herself -- and who learned to do that.  

Previously: Athena FF: Amma Asante's Belle Revisits Jane Austen Through Black POV