Belle Director Amma Assante explains why she wanted to tell a Jane Austen Story with a Black Protagonist
Belle will be released in the US on May 2.
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. MORE
Belle Director Amma Asante on Challenging Stereotypes About Black Directors
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.