Amma Asante is on a roll.
After she won Britain’s equivalent of the Oscar (for most promising newcomer) for “A Way of Life,” her 2004 debut feature as a writer-director, the offers poured in. But the London-born actress-turned-filmmaker wanted to tackle something completely different from that gritty, contemporary kitchen-sink drama, which is set in Wales. Finally, in 2013, came “Belle,” a fact-based period romance about the relationship between a mixed-race woman (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and a white Englishman (Sam Reid), set against the backdrop of the 18th-century slave trade.
Asante’s latest film, “A United Kingdom,” plies a similar theme. It’s the true story of Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo) – the first prime minister of Botswana and a man of royal birth – and his controversial 1948 marriage to a white English commoner, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Asante’s next project, due out in 2018, is “Where Hands Touch,” a World War II-era love story about a mixed-race German teenager (Amandla Stenberg) and the boy she loves, a member of the Hitler Youth (George McKay).
Until a few years ago, the 47-year-old director lived in The Hague with her Danish-born husband. But she has been so busy lately, jumping from locations in London to Botswana to Belgium, that she has, as she jokingly put it during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., “no fixed abode.” Asante sat down long enough to talk about her work’s central themes – identity, love and globalism – and the legacy of her immigrant parents.
Given that you’ve now made two films on the theme of interracial romance, with a third on the way, is there a danger of being pigeonholed as a director?
You can be. If your industry perceives that you’ve done well with something, they offer you more of the same. For me, each film exercises different muscles.
Meaning the romantic muscle and the political muscle?
That as well, but I also mean that each film is different from the other. When I made “A Way of Life,” I remember the industry, on both sides of the pond, saying: “It’s a great movie, but it’s so rough, so raw. I wonder if she can do anything polished?” Then I did “Belle,” and they were like: “It’s so polished. Can she do anything gritty?” I wanted “Belle” to be very different from “A Way of Life.” And “A United Kingdom – with its David Lean-esque landscapes and backdrop of international politics – is hugely different from “Belle,” which takes place in drawing rooms and the smaller streets of London. “Where Hands Touch” is very much a 1944 Berlin world.
Is there something in the zeitgeist that explains why we’re seeing more interracial love stories like “Loving,” that set the personal in the context of the political?
The climate is ripe. Way back when, there had been no “Belle,” no “(The) Butler,” no “12 Years a Slave,” no “Selma,” none of these movies that proved there was an interest. I think we do look back when we come to times of struggle, to see how far we’ve come and how far we need to move forward. The same financiers that I had presented “Where Hands Touch” to years before suddenly called me up and asked: “Have you still got that project from 10 years back? Because we’re thinking now might be a good time to put money into it.”
Is “Hands” also based on a true story?
No, the backdrop is historical fact, but the story is completely fictional. As a woman director, I’m always going to be interested in how the political impacts the personal. For me, everything is political. It just depends on whether it’s big-P or small-P political.
Which of your films delivers your strongest message?
Movies are like children. It’s like asking a parent, “Who’s your favourite child?” What I can say about “Where Hands Touch” is that I’ve been desperate to tell this story, for many reasons. It explores things that concern me about today, in a way that allows an audience to feel safe, because it distances them from today. They’re seeing a world they recognise, but through a gaze they haven’t quite seen it through before. This is what I’d like to do with all my movies: to make a huge comment on today.
As a woman of colour, what is it that concerns you – about the situation for people of colour, for women, for members of other religions?
I think we should add “for white people,” as well. When I made “A Way of Life,” I was in my early 30s. People said, “This movie appears to be about race, but it’s about a bunch of racist white kids in Wales.” It had no people of colour in it, except for the Turkish neighbour, who looks like them, but with a slight tan. That movie was about a type of person who, in a community where employment was nonexistent, felt that their frustrations were not being heard. When you disallow elements of the community to not have a voice, they will take it out on the person who has the slightest difference from them, let alone the person who has the most extreme difference, as I do, with certain white people.
How has that discontent expressed itself in the U.K.?
Well, we have Brexit. As someone born and raised in England, my whole experience has been one of a country that was strengthening its position and identity within Europe. That became a part of my identity. With every move toward strengthening that, my life got tangibly better. But what feels like progress for me – and I understand that not everybody saw that as progress – has kind of been un-picked, and it feels like we’re going backwards. Someone once told me that what we think as a steady, uphill sense of progress is actually more like a coil: You have to go down before you can come up. Perhaps that’s where we are. Who knows where it will lead? I’m an eternal optimist.
You gave a TED talk titled “The Power of Defining Yourself.” Why does the theme of identity exert such a strong pull in your films?
The question I always ask is, “Who defines you?” Depending on who you allow to define your identity, that person has the power of your happiness, of your personal sense of success, in their hands. If you’ve constantly been told you are not worthy – whether you’re black, white, female, gay, straight, whatever your religion – if you’re constantly being told you are not relevant, for some of us it’s very difficult to find the strength to get on our feet and contribute positively. By holding others back, we only damage ourselves.
You mean the idea that in order for someone to win, someone else has to lose?
Right. When you talk about diversity in filmmaking, it has never been about reducing the number of films made by white straight men of a certain age. It’s not a race to the bottom.
You’ve known David Oyelowo since he was cast in “Brothers and Sisters,” the 1998 British TV series you wrote. As a producer on “Kingdom,” did he ask you to direct it?
Yes. There I was, in The Hague, and the phone was ringing incessantly. “Whoever you are,” I thought, “Give me a day off.” It was David, calling from Africa, where he was making “Queen of Katwe.” “I want to talk to you about a book I’ve read, by Susan Williams, called “Colour Bar,” about Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams,” he said. “Do you know them?” I was like, “No, David, I haven’t heard of them. Who are these people?” He had done “Selma,” I had finished “Belle,” and Rosamund Pike had done “Gone Girl.”
Three people with newfound clout, perhaps?
To some extent, yeah, and all Brits. What embarrassed me about not knowing anything about Khama is that I am the child of immigrants who moved from Ghana, the first African country to gain independence. My dad stood in Independence Square (in Accra) and waved that first flag of Ghana. He listened to [the first Ghanian prime minister and president] Kwame Nkrumah’s speeches. I was raised reciting those speeches. My father was no longer alive for me to set him down and say, “Dad, how did I miss this one?” (Screenwriter) Guy Hibbert had done an amazing job on the screenplay, but we continued to work on it to bring certain things out.
I wanted to hear from the African women, to learn their politics with a small P. I wanted Seretse to have an inner arc that was about democracy. I wanted to bring in an international context so that we understand that America is in the midst of its Jim Crow laws as this is happening. I am the child of Kwane Asante. He would be turning in his grave if I didn’t.
How did your childhood shape you as an artist?
When you are the child of immigrants, particularly the first generation, your world is politicized so early. I understood very early, as a small child, how race and class intersected. Some of the negative things we experienced probably had as much to do with the fact that my parents had ambition as it did with the color of their skin. They didn’t really see a ceiling for themselves.
Or, apparently, for you?
Absolutely. One of my father’s mantras was “There’s no place you do not belong.”