Amma Asante uses her films to shed light on little-known history

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Amma Asante is a British director, writer, and actress who is known for her films that shed light on little-known history. She has directed four feature films including Belle and A United Kingdom. Her films address questions of racial identity and the challenges of interracial relationships throughout different time periods. Through her movies, she has brought attention to people in history who have often been forgotten. 

Asante was born in London to parents who had immigrated there from Ghana. She began acting at a young age, appearing in British television series including Grange Hill, Desmond’s, and Birds of a Feather. She wrote the 1998 BBC series Brothers and Sisters, which she produced through the company she founded, Tantrum Films. Asante has also directed episodes of the popular television shows The Handmaid’s Tale and Mrs. America. Asante was named a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2017. She is married to Søren Pedersen, the spokesperson for the European police at The Hague. 

Asante made her first film in 2004 through Tantrum Films. A Way of Life is about a single teenage mother in Cardiff and the challenges she faces. Her directorial debut was well received and the film touched on cultural conflict, which would become a larger theme in Asante’s later work. 

In 2013, Asante received much attention for her film Belle, which tells the story of a real woman named Dido Elizabeth Belle who was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and a navy captain in 18th century England. The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, James Norton, Tom Felton, and Emily Watson, just to name a few members of its cast which represents some of the best of British period drama. 

From Belle, taken by David Appleby

She followed it up with A United Kingdom in 2016 which was written by Guy Hibbert with a beautiful score by Patrick Doyle. It is based on the real life love story between Seretse Khama, who was the heir to the throne of Botswana (then called Bechuanaland). and his wife Ruth. It stars David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Laura Carmichael, Tom Felton, and Terry Pheto. 

Her 2018 film Where Hands Touch, which she wrote and directed, sparked controversy as it portrays a biracial girl and a Nazi boy falling in love in Germany during WWII. It stars Amandla Stenberg, George McKay, Abbie Cornish, and Christopher Eccleston. All three of Asante’s most recent films have gorgeous costume and production design, better even than many other period dramas. But her three most recent films have more in common than just a beautiful aesthetic. 

With her work, Asante has brought attention to parts of history that have largely been ignored. Belle tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the subject of a painting that is significant for showing a Black person on nearly equal footing with a white person. Even though the film is not entirely factually correct, Asante’s creative liberties serve the purpose of telling a great story and presenting Belle’s life in a way that makes the audience want to know more. As for A United Kingdom, Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams Khama’s story, both as a romance and a testament to ridding Africa of colonization by European countries, is beautiful and largely unknown outside of Botswana. Khama was not only the heir to the kingdom, but later was elected the first president of the country. His romance with Ruth and the way that they fought back against the United Kingdom attempting to undermine them at every step is a story very much worth telling.  

For all its faults (and it definitely has some), Where Hands Touch sheds light on the fate of the Black Germans during WWII and the way that they were persecuted, put into camps, and killed alongside Jewish people and others that didn’t fit Hitler’s vision of an Aryan country. Even those who have studied the war extensively may not know about the Rhineland children who were the children of German mothers and African soldiers sent to Germany during WWI. Asante has used her power as a storyteller to bring attention to Black history that is not part of the common narrative. 

One theme that’s prevalent in much of Asante’s work is racial identity. Belle has many poignant moments as Dido navigates her place within her family and society as a whole as a wealthy Black woman in England. A scene in which a Black servant in her uncle’s London household teaches her how to care for her hair is particularly moving. In A United Kingdom, Ruth Khama must navigate a very segregated society as a white woman married to a Black man. She quickly figures out that while the other white women are nice to her, they are not genuine and she comes to be accepted by her husband’s family and tribe. 

From A United Kingdom; photo by Stanislav Honzik.

In Where Hands Touch, Leyna continues to assert her identity as a German citizen even as her country’s government and people seem to reject her because of her race. The film illuminates the challenges that the biracial Rhineland children face and how it affected both her and her white mother. “I am of German blood,” Leyna asserts as she strives to figure out how her racial identity and her German nationality intersect. Each of the films also give the audience a sibling character who is not plagued by the same issues to provide contrast. This form of inner conflict is almost never seen in period dramas other than Asante’s. 

Asante also has depicted interracial relationships across the three films. All three movies explore the opposition that the couples receive not just from society, but from their own families. With Belle, she explores how economic status and race both influence a relationship as Dido is a Black woman, but has a large fortune meaning that white men who would otherwise look down on her are willing to pursue a relationship. But by the end of the film, Dido has found a partner who neither fetishizes her race nor sees it as something to look past. In A United Kingdom, the Khamas are somewhat surprised by the level of opposition they face not only from drunk men in the street and from their families, but from Khama’s tribe and the British government. She builds romances well even if the films sometimes struggle with feeling unbalanced between the love story and the social issues and history being told. Asante is a Black woman married to a white Danish man which gives her an authenticity and an interest in exploring these interracial relationships, particularly those based in historical fact.

Asante has set herself apart as someone who makes period dramas that are unique in their subject matter instead of just another WWII film. She uses these period dramas to highlight history that has often gone ignored, but her work as a whole demonstrates how little has changed over time and how much progress still needs to be made. She is set to direct a Cold War thriller called The Billion Dollar Spy next. She continues to expand her horizons and earlier this year, became the Chancellor at Norwich University of the Arts in Norwich, England. Asante’s existing work is definitely worth watching, particularly Belle and A United Kingdom, and she’s certainly a director to keep an eye on. 

© Nicole Ackman (6/8/20) FF2 Media

From Where Hands Touch; photo by Jo Voets.

Featured Image: Photo of Amma Asante from IMDB.

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Nicole Ackman
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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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