Amma Asante on set of “Belle” (Photo Courtesy Fox Searchlight)
If you asked most people in Hollywood who Amma Asante was just a few months ago, you’d probably get a blank stare. Now, after the release of her critically acclaimed film “Belle,” the British writer-director is a certified Hollywood player.
Asante’s life and career took a dramatic turn in May, when “Belle” hit theaters in North America. TheWrap spoke with her this past weekend in Boston at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Convention, where Asante introduced clips of the film during a presentation by Fox Home Entertainment.
“You make a movie essentially in a bubble, I think, especially when it’s your second movie,” Asante said. “So, I was certainly making this movie in a bubble, and wondering whether my concept of the world, and my concept of the world back then as well, would connect to an audience today.”
It seems Asante had no reason to worry. “Belle” received an impressive 83 percent positive rating on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes and the independent film earned a respectable $10 million at the box office via Fox Searchlight.
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The movie is based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Royal Navy Captain, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode). Lindsay leaves Belle to be raised by her aristocratic great uncle, Lord Mansfield, in 18th century England. Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson) are already taking care of another niece, and the two girls become inseparable. But while Belle’s lineage allows her certain privileges, her skin color prevents her from having the traditional noble social status.
Amma Asante speaks at NABJ in Boston, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014 (Credit: Brett E. Chambers)
“Initially this project had started off with my producer and the writer who’s credited on the film, with HBO in America. Then HBO dropped the project,” Asante said. After the script passed through several different hands, Asante decided to give it a more personal touch.
“What I did was, I put my experiences into Dido’s life. That was the easiest way of connecting the historical facts and to try and make it personal … There are many lines in it that are quotes from my father and quotes from my sister,” Asante said, referring to the fact that she grew up in England, but felt like an outsider because she is black and of Ghanaian descent.
“We lived in an area where we were one of only two black families on the street,” Asante explained as she opened up about her personal experiences with racism. “We went through that period of having feces through the letterbox (mailbox) … and graffiti on our walls.”