The Director Of A United Kingdom On Race & Identity

Filmmaker Amma Asante first appeared on our screens as a trained actress – a regular on classic children’s TV programme Grange Hill. A move into screenwriting and later directing led her to make some of the most searching films on race to come out of Britain in the last 15 years. Her first foray into directing was 2004’s award winning A Way of Life, the story of a teenage mum living in a council flat and harbouring a deep suspicion about her Turkish neighbour. Amma’s 2013 hit Belle was a period drama-style film based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed race daughter of a British navy captain and an African slave. It was critically acclaimed, winning Outstanding Independent Motion Picture at the NAACP’s Image Awards. Oprah was champion of it, too. Now, Amma Asante is back with another film about Britain’s history with race. A United Kingdom – based in the true story of the first president of Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelow) and his white British wife, Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike) – opened the 60th London Film Festival last month. A few weeks back, at the start of Black History Month, Refinery29 sat down with Amma to talk race, empathy, and representation.
I’m really excited by your films, because [at school] everything you got during Black History Month was Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

They asked me [in a previous interview] what was the turning point for you when you understood your identity as you’re comfortable with it today? And I said it was in the arts. It was popular culture. It was Soul II Soul, it was Young Soul Rebels. It was a generation of first generationers who were taking the black British experience and impressing it on the arts. That’s how I saw my identity reflected back at me. That’s why cinema, music, all of those things, are so important. Because what we were doing previously was looking to America. Of course we have massive overlaps, there’s no doubt about that. But being black and British is a completely unique experience in many ways… Our parents – and probably your grandparents – came to do the jobs that white British people didn’t want to do. Growing up as a child, nobody was careful about the fact that I was a ten-year-old when they were being explicitly racist. Today it’s more subversive, it’s more underground, it’s not as explicit as it was. But nobody thought this is a malleable, vulnerable, ten-year-old mind.

Were there any black characters that you strongly resonated with as a child on screen?

The first person of colour that I can really remember seeing – well not exactly my intersection, because he was male – was actually my cousin, Christopher Asante, who was on a programme called Mind Your Language. There were all sorts of programmes that did involve black people in some way, but the racial element, Love Thy Neighbour, that kind of thing, were always a bit disconcerting to me. For me it really was America, and it wasn’t really on screen… It was Ebony magazine as a child. Because in Ebony magazine I saw beautiful, black, professional women. There was an elegance to them… I wanted to see women like I thought I would grow up into.

You did
an interview with the Guardian when Belle came out saying that you’re grateful for the National Front because you know where you stand with them – and that was about racism. Where do you feel that you stand now, as a black filmmaker?

It’s harder now, because people are cleverer at it. As I speak about this, we’re in a transition where blatant racism is coming back. Certainly, Belle and earlier, it was more clever, more subtle, but still pervasive. There’s language that’s really useful for me in describing it, language like privilege, language like entitlement. I’m casting for my next film, and a [white] actress came and auditioned for it recently, who didn’t get the part. Meeting her for the audition was the first time I’d met her. The next time I saw her, she came up to me and publicly just screamed at me, because not only did she not get the part, but the person who responded to her – because she had written me a letter – was the producer. Now, you know, as an actor, [I know] that if you go for a part and you write to the director, oftentimes you’ll be lucky if you get a response. If you get a response from the producer, actually that’s a great respect. Her sense of entitlement, her sense of privilege, said this director should have responded to me. I know that there are few actresses of any colour that would expect that from a white male director. Why would you expect him to write back to you? Did he ask you to write to him? You chose to. It’s that sense of I will treat you this way, but I won’t treat him that way.
Often when you speak about racism, people want a like for like comparison [of preferential treatment] . Belle was really interesting because you had two women characters (one white, one black), and there was a clear comparison.

Well, that’s what is demanded of us in society. Tell us. Tell us. Give us the evidence. Do you think with your films you’re providing a kind of evidence to the British public?
I think that with my films what I’m able to do is to allow men and women of all colours to walk in the shoes of the protagonist, a protagonist that has not traditionally been black, or black and female. If you experience life from this point of view – because that’s what you do with your lead actor, you force the audience into their point of view – would you come up with any other conclusion? Do you feel that it is right that a woman [as in Belle] should be raised in a privileged household where she’s treated with privilege in the most part, but not sit at the table with her family, and is told that it’s because she’s black but also it’s the rules of society at the time? They love her, but just because you love someone doesn’t mean you can’t be racist.

Mixed race relationships are a theme in both
Belle and A United Kingdom, there’s a saying that [for white people] to really understand racism they have to be in love with a black person…

Or have a black child, have a biracial child. When you walk with the point of view of your partner of colour, I think it changes the way you see the world. Similarly, if you have a person you love and treat as a sister who is white, as in Belle, or if you are the person of colour in the relationship, you also see what life looks like from the privileged point of view. I see how the world responds differently to my [white] husband than to me… If I walk through security at an airport and I am stopped, and then he walks back and says ‘are you OK honey?’ and suddenly I’m free to go, it’s very different to being a black female who travels alone.

A United Kingdom
was quite a while in the making. What was the catalyst that pushed it to where it is now?

I wasn’t involved until David Oyelowo gave me the call. David had found it several years before, but David hadn’t made Selma. Rosamund [Pike] hadn’t made Gone Girl, and I hadn’t made Belle. It was those three things coming together at the same time, and all of us having individual success with three separate films. All being British, but all having a level of success in America. I had to prove that I could make a film that was very different from A Way of Life, and that was Belle, and I did that. The team was what catapulted it into getting the green light.

David gave a fantastic interview to the
Radio Times when Selma came out, where he essentially just called out the industry. Do you think things have changed?

Within the context of any industry, you’ll always have the progressive folk... I think that there are more of those than there ever have been. We as filmmakers, actors, are desperately seeking them out and not wasting time banging our heads against brick walls, trying to persuade the powers that be who just don’t get it. I think that that’s helping us to walk around this huge corner that we’ve come to. The issue of diversity is that we as a society – black, white, female, male, varying levels of ability– have always understood that there is a particular default story that has a default protagonist. Anything that veers way from that is not a good film, or is not done properly… or doesn’t come together. Any level of diversity challenges that. If you’re gonna ask us to come to the table you must understand that we’re the same but we’re different. We have the same universal values and qualities and hurts and loves and joys and sorrows and flaws as everybody else, but we’re different in that we see it from a different gaze. What you can’t do is when we show it to you from that gaze is say that’s wrong, it’s not a good film, it doesn’t work. If I make Rosamund’s character Ruth the other in Africa, that might be something you’re not used to seeing. But allow us to tell that story, because you’ll see that the experience of the other is something that can happen to anybody. A United Kingdom is released nationwide on 25th November.

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