Still from "Belle"
Still from "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 second of two interviews we are publishing on Women and Hollywood with Asante. (Part one can be found here.) Though the film's interlocking themes of race, gender, and class make those issues difficult to pry apart, the first-part focuses more on gender, love, and the origins of the film, and the second-part on race, history, and the fascinating behind-the-scenes details of period filmmaking. 

Belle will be released in the US on May 2.

It's so serendipitous that you found Dido through a painting. I read a few months ago about a Tumblr by an art historian of color who was looking at Renaissance paintings that had been literally whitewashed to erase people of color out of the frame, to pretend that Europe was a was a lot whiter during the Early Modern period than it actually was.

Definitely. In terms of the Victorian period, Queen Victoria actually ordered -- I could be wrong, but I think it was about 15,000 black people out of the London area because she felt there were too many of us in London at the time. That's a little later than Dido, but it's still the Victorian period. So definitely, there was this effort to not only make Europe seem a lot whiter, but also to not include people of color when it came to any sense of achievement.

And yet Dido is often described in historical papers as "the little girl who changed history." That's often the title that's used for her, and I get goosebumps when I say that, because she really was. I'm sure that if we think hard enough, there are many more interesting stories like this, and that's why a film like Belle is so important. Because if Belle does well with audiences and at the box office, it will hopefully open the door even wider for period pieces and historical pieces with protagonists of color to be told.

Speaking of color, was there a reason why Dido was so often in pink?

When I agreed to do the project, I wanted to create my version of an English rose. Oftentimes you'll see Dido in a blue color but you also see roses around her or a vase of roses behind her or somewhere in the image. That was because I really wanted to communicate to the audience: that there are many types of English roses, and let me offer you another one for your consideration.

You said at the beginning of our conversation that you're really obsessed with the 18th century. How did that obsession come about?  

I started to get really interested in Austen around age 27 when I was studying for my A-levels. [Since she worked as an actress throughout her teens, Asante completed her high-school studies in her mid twenties while writing and producing the BBC2 series Brothers and Sisters.] Then I started to read more and more stories that were set during that period.

I started to get a greater grasp for what it was that Jane Austen was doing -- how she used humor to put across her stories, and how sometimes a story thread that seemed so basic could actually be so complex and so interesting. I just knew once I finished my first movie [A Way of Life] that at some point in my career I was absolutely desperate to do a period piece.

I also really wanted to do it because I wanted to show that a filmmaker of color could make a very British movie that had everything we knew so well and could do it authentically and effectively. The idea of restricting us -- "Ok, you guys are great at urban movies. You guys are great at comedies" -- I wanted to show how shallow that view is.

Once you got around to making a period film, were there any special challenges? At the post-screening Q&A at the Athena Film Festival, you talked about how it was horrifying to see your actresses in these really constricting outfits.

I wore a corset at the BAFTA awards, and let me tell you, I wish I had not. It was so painful. The wigs take a long time to redo. To put all the underwear on, to put the dresses on, takes a long time.

Did you find any beauty guides that pertained to black women in the 18th century that you could use as a reference?

That pertained to black women, no. I found beauty guides that pertained to white women, which was quite interesting because, you know they had that great big high hair that Dido has in the movie as well. I found things like how they would use horse hair to add to their own hair to make it higher, how they would use vegetables and things like that to make rouged cheeks and things like that, but nothing specifically pertaining to black women.

That's also why you don't really see Gugu's character Dido with very much makeup on, with any makeup on, really -- she's particularly nude-faced in the film because the reality of where she would have found anything that would have been appropriate for her, I couldn't find it.

Was there any horse hair in any of the actresses' wigs?

Yes, there was a lot. I'm not going to tell you who. That's also why it took so long to do hair; their hair was absolutely spot-on in terms of period hairstyles.

Switching gears a bit, how did you make that transition from acting to directing?

I had been writing and producing for quite a while in British television. I wanted to circle my screenplays around some of the things that we've discussed -- race, gender, and class -- and I wasn't sure that TV was the right place for me to do it.

I had written my first script, A Way of Life -- which, thankfully, went on to do quite well critically, and won me a BAFTA and lots of other international awards -- and I was very protective of it.

One day, one of my funders at the BFI called me in and said, "Hey. I know you would really like to produce this movie, and that's all very well, but actually we'd love you to direct it." I sort of shrunk back into the sofa and said, "No, no. That's not something I can do. I'm a writer. What I do is write, and this is the best thing I've ever written to date, and I don't want to be the person who ruins it by trying to direct it. This movie is my baby and I'm not going to kill it!"

They were very adamant and said, "Look. You're not going to kill your movie. We'll send you to film school for a month" -- like a month of film school, what's that? -- "And we're going to give you some money so that you can shoot a pilot of the movie. We want you do a couple of scenes so you get used to getting behind the camera then we want you to go off and make a movie."

It took about a month to convince me, to get the courage to accept the offer. Off I went to film school and had one-to-one training with cinematographers, other directors, and editors -- I literally had one to one time with all of the heads of department that you've have on a real movie, then I went off and shot a pilot. Then I thought, "Wow, I really like this." Being able to create the characters and then see it through, it felt like, this is what I was born for.