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A Revolutionary Traditionalist: In Praise of Amma Asante

I’m grateful for Amma Asante. Her work is new and stimulating, yet rests gloriously in a traditional and classic milieu. Her two most recent feature films, 2014’s Belle and 2016’s A United Kingdom, tell real-life historical stories in seemingly traditional ways. The former focuses on a semi-fictionalised story surrounding Dido Elizabeth Belle, and the latter on the relationship between Sir Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth Williams Khama. Despite exhibiting many hallmarks of conventional period cinema, with opulent production design and a familiarly rain-soaked and grey-tinged London (and not discounting their propensity for emotion-bating and ultimately feel good, audience-assuring conclusions), both pictures use their central narrative hooks and a foregrounding of racial conflicts, to explore and historicise ideas of power and injustice, and legislature and government, enmeshed in battles of race, oppression, and attempts to dismantle structures of power. As a director and woman of colour, Asante exists as a diverse auteur. Her work may follow convention on aesthetic and thematic levels; however there is something to be said for her presence as director, delivering cinema that foregrounds women’s narratives and re-frames traditionally male-centric history towards new perspectives. Asante could be likened to an archaeologist or anthropologist – unearthing long dormant stories about relationships and women that challenge inequality and racist power structures. The fact that they are told from female perspectives, and surround racial narratives is a remarkable and wonderful thing, worth singling out. Moving away from the films themselves, Asante situates herself as a leader for women’s voices and opportunities in cinema. Through projects that provide opportunities to women aspiring to work in the film industry, her working ethos, and future outputs, Asante represents an intersectional cinema that is both old and new, classic and revolutionary.

What I find so politically and culturally valuable about Asante’s work is that by deploying narratives of love (whether familial as is the case with Belle or romantic with A United Kingdom), she is able to establish an emotional and humanly specific ‘in’ to the larger political issues present in these stories. In Belle, Asante tells a story that re-frames Britain’s involvement in the slave trade through a narrative of familial love and respect for every human being’s humanity, and in A United Kingdom she foregrounds classically romantic tropes, but re-frames these to offer up a narrative that conveys resistance - in the form of a mixed-race couple - against colonialist and racist structures. By choosing to frame her films around narratives of love and unity, Asante is able to explore issues of government and legislature and the often present corruption, inequality and injustice they continue to enshrine.

Although based upon a real-life character, the overarching story of Belle is heavily fictionalised. There seems to be little historical evidence to support Asante’s orientation of the titular character’s involvement in the legislative rulings that form a central arc of the film. This however, is Asante’s right. By situating these historical events and the ruling surrounding the Zong massacre that set in motion Britain’s opposition of the slave movement, Asante is able to historicise a moment in time through the perspective of a woman of colour who, by all accounts, would have been elbowed to the margins of history. By framing the story through Belle (played with great command, verve, and empathy by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) Asante is able to centre her story of adoption and familial love and use it as a palatable means to humanely explore the ravages of the slave trade. This fictionalisation is a tool by which Asante is able to directly short-circuit the male dominance of history and present her own version of events, placing women with agency and command at the centre. Asante’s Belle is a woman who challenges her highly gendered place in the world, and invites contemporary audiences to situate themselves within the director’s vision of the past. Moreover, the notion - as referenced in the closing credits - that the film is based on a visage of a girl in a painting gives credence to Asante’s role as amplifier of the forgotten. In particular, the forgotten experiences of women of colour, whose stories have been hushed and caught underfoot by patriarchal dominance.

In A United Kingdom, Asante is able to shed light upon the corrupt, unethical, and morally destitute deeds of a colonial Britain that are conveniently expunged from memory. As with Belle, by using a human story rooted in love, Asante enters into a stealthy dissection of governmental actions and inter-continental (and colonial) histories. In following the love story between Ruth Wilson and Sereste Khama, and the struggles they faced both in Wilson’s Britain and Sereste’s Bechuanaland, Asante frames their marriage around the hostility they received from families, governments, and countries (based on prejudice and the rise of apartheid). As such, Asante is able - much like she did with Belle - to intercut the central love story with sequences of governmental action and debate, and to situate these romantic narratives around points of social, personal, and institutional injustice. Asante’s cinema is personal and political, and is executed with a classic hand.

I would suggest that the time periods of these films, as well as Asante’s particular framing and composition of her work (hewing to traditional aesthetic standards), function on multiple levels. Firstly both films are presented as classic and traditional in terms of their material, craft, and design. However, due to Asante’s direction of narrative (and historical) events, which are re-framed around the agency and complexity of women in order to speak to institutions of power and gendered racism, a powerfully feminist turn is made. The classic design and formal qualities of the films marry well to their period natures, but also subvert themselves through Asante’s wonderful embrace of diversity and humanity. Asante tells classic stories in aesthetically traditional and elegant ways, but through her hand and authorship, she forges something new, something egalitarian, and something beautiful. Her films celebrate common humanity and the unalienable rights people ought to receive but are so often stripped of.

Asante’s work in the film industry adds another dimension to her invaluability in the celebration, encouragement and actualisation of work by and about women (specifically women of colour). Asante participated in a scheme that enabled any women aged over eighteen to shadow her on set, in order to gain experience and to offer insight to boost their own careers. Asante herself states that she hopes to be a

“[s]mall reminder for you that despite the inequalities in our industry, the goal of bringing your voice to the screen is one you have every right to pursue and to believe can be brought to fruition.”

This directly illustrates Asante’s commitment to women in film, both in front of, and behind the camera. I would further add that both this opportunity and Asante’s films themselves fit this remit, and embolden new aims for diversity and inclusivity.

Considering Asante’s work and its implicit, revolutionary reframing (through their deployment of traditional aesthetics, design, and techniques, fused with narratives and directorial focuses that challenges racial inequality and institutions of power), I conclude that she is a filmmaker to celebrate, admire and follow. Asante is currently working on her fourth feature film Where Hands Touch, due for release in 2017. It will tell the story of a young bi-racial woman (played by the spectacular and politically engaged Amandla Stenberg) who forges a friendship with a member of the Hitler Youth. I am grateful that within three years, we have been fortunate enough to receive two distinct visions that respect the voices of love and humanity at their core. Films that not only celebrate love, but also - through Asante’s embrace of traditional period approaches - fearlessly challenge institutions of power and inequality and orient female perspectives with command and agency. What’s more, I am thankful that this is set to continue. Asante has a profound voice: it graces our screens with subtle elegance and familiar traditionalism, but underneath everything is charged with an innovative, feminist, and revelatory voice.

Words by Daniel Massie

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