Amma Asante: 'Belle' Presents New Type of English Rose

The period drama, about a biracial aristocrat, is more Jane Austen than '12 Years a Slave,' the director says.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Amma Asante and James Norton are on the set of "Belle."

Director Amma Asante, center, is on the set of "Belle" with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and James Norton.

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According to director Amma Asante, the painting that helped inspired her new film “Belle” – a 1779 century portrait by Johann Zoffany – is extraordinary. But it was only the start of the even more extraordinary story of one of its two subjects, Dido Elizabeth Belle, the biracial daughter of a Royal Navy captain and an African slave, who was left in the care of her aristocratic great uncle, Britain's chief justice Lord Mansfield.

With all the flourish of a Jane Austen costume drama, “Belle” explores the politics of slavery – Mansfield must make a ruling on what is known as the Zong case, which has wide implications for the British slave trade – and the economic conundrums present in England’s 18th century class system, particularly for women. Asante – the British daughter of Ghanaian immigrants whose first film "A Way of Life," won her a BAFTA – talked to U.S. News about making the film.

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[Edited for length and clarity.]

What attracted you to Dido’s story?
What I saw was the opportunity – if I get the story right – to combine history, politics, race and art, because I hadn’t seen anything like this painting before. A year prior, my husband had taken me to an exhibition in Holland that looked at the history of black people in European art from about the 14th century onward and I learned really clearly from that exhibition that during the 18th century, people of color, we were very much pets. We were accessories. We were there to express the status of the main protagonist in the painting. So we would always be lower down, never be looking out at the painter. We would always be looking up in awe at the main protagonist.
When I got this painting [Zoffany's portrait, which was sent to Asante on a postcard with a copy of Misan Sagay's original script for the film] a year later, I knew that this was completely different, because there is Dido staring directly out at the painter. She is painted slightly higher in the painting than Elizabeth [Dido’s cousin], and of course Elizabeth is reaching out to her. I knew it was unique, I knew it was special, and then I thought to myself, 'Wow, this would be an opportunity to tell a story where I could put a woman of color front and center in a period drama in a way I hadn’t seen before.'

A portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray is attributed to Johann Zoffany.
A portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray is attributed to Johann Zoffany.

What sort of research did you do?
There was no quintessential kind of piece of work on Dido. It is about piecing it all together. But where there was a great deal of work was on the Zong case and Lord Mansfield, so that was great for me to get that foundation for the case.

But you did take some liberties?
Dido was about 12 years old when the Zong case came into Lord Mansfield’s life and it was important to me that she’d be a bit older [in the film], because I wanted to take her from girl to woman. I wanted to have her have a political awakening, and in order to explore the themes that both the Zong [case] brings out and Dido’s presence in the house brings out – the idea that she would have an impact on Lord Mansfield’s decision or not – I needed her to be older, and also to look at the gender stuff that I wanted to look at with the two girls and the marriage market.

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I always wanted to tell this story of genteel society, this Jane Austen story that is here, but I wanted to also inform the audience what the economy was that was holding up that society, what trade – because at that time it was the slave trade, it was shipping – that was holding up that genteel society that we often see in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.”

What is your approach to the look of the film, with he costumes and the set pieces and the like?
I’m a girl and I just love being a girl, and I think sometimes when you are in this industry, really when you’re a director, there’s this need to prove yourself, and the more feminine you are, the less able you might be [considered] by the more male industry. I just refuse to give up any of who I really am, so I loved every moment of deciding that I wanted Dido to be my version of an English rose. I wanted to introduce to the world a new way to look at an English rose. There isn’t just one type, in the way that there isn’t just one type of rose. So she is always in this rosy color, in this light pink, gentle pinks as well as deep magentas.