Born to Ghanaian parents in Streatham, few other prominent filmmakers in the British film industry know the struggles of negotiating a trans-cultural identity better than Amma Asante. Her humanising approach towards black and white characters alike gives her films nuance, but might explain why some think of them as ‘white saviour’ films. Nonetheless, her experience informs the sensitive depiction of external and internalised racism in her timely period romances. Asante’s perspective as a black woman and a child of immigrants is by no account rare, so the question here is really, what took the industry so long to accept storytellers like her?
The past five years saw Asante bring romantic drama movies Belle and A United Kingdom to the silver screen. One is a gilded Austenian romance, the other chronicles an epic love story in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. As far as romances go, they couldn’t be more different. Apart from one thing. Both stories tackle the harsh reality of building an interracial relationship.
Belle tells the story of a biracial girl, Dido Elizabeth Belle, brought up to be a gentlewoman in the household of her great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice. The film shows Dido developing self-awareness as a mixed-race woman, who through her involvement in the Zong case indirectly pushed Britain towards abolition. The film triumphantly ends in her finding love and respect in the form of John Davinier, Lord Mansfield’s apprentice.
A United Kingdom presents how the tender love between Seretse Khama, prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and Ruth Williams, a white English woman, overcame opposition from the British Empire and South Africa just as it was about to implement Apartheid. Raised by parents who are fiercely proud of Ghana independence, Asante shows her deep understanding of the importance of self-realisation for a colonised nation in this movie.
As soon as the films came out, there has been no shortage of media attention. The coverage focused on the rarity of interracial romance on screen. The films themselves also do nothing to avoid the topic, to make interracial romance look just like any other monoracial love story. Because despite the need for representation in drama, presenting interracial relationships as any other monoracial relationship can only get us so far. There is nothing normal about having to go through more difficulty than monoracial couples and it’s high time someone shed light on it.
Because of the privilege her characters enjoy, Asante’s historical drama may at times feel anachronistic. Dido’s status as an upper class free woman, for instance, is by no way representative of the brutal conditions suffered by slaves in the 18th century. The very privilege presented here only serves to dramatically highlight the racial injustice.
Belle, like any good Georgian romance, takes place mostly in grand mansions and ostentatious society gatherings. The genteel detachment of the genre often makes it easy to forget that the glamour is built upon slavery. But the horror of slave trade seeps into Belle regardless, because being sheltered is not a privilege Dido is afforded. Learning that the slaves were murdered in cold blood for an insurance fraud scheme, Dido can’t help but question how much her own life is valued by those around her.
The privileges Asante’s characters enjoy are superficial. They fail to grant them equal treatment. That’s why her stories resonate resolutely with our times. Belle is as much a romance as it is a story of self-discovery for someone who does not see herself in the society surrounding her. Dido, “blessed with freedom twice over, as a negro and as a woman”, struggles to truly be free. In one scene, we see Dido looking at herself in the mirror with pain, pulling at her own skin. She longs to be rid of the discrimination that comes with her skin colour, but tired of being trapped with next to no option, this resentment is directed against herself.
Asante layers her films with some not-so-subtle jabs at the gender trouble. We see her acute awareness in Belle when the suitor Oliver Ashford fetishises Dido as a “most rare and exotic flower”. We see it again in A United Kingdom when Ruth is called a “whore” for being with a black man, and Seretse gets beaten up for “taking what’s [theirs]”.
Asante’s films consciously depict how the powers that be divide and conquer. In A United Kingdom, Seretse disagrees with his uncle, the regent, on the subject of his marriage. Despite the pair having peacefully resolved the issue, the British government banishes Seretse on the flimsy grounds that his ‘conflict’ with the regent would destabilize Bechuanaland. The colonial power then conveniently installs its own administration as the native authority. Asante makes it crystal clear that the authority derives its power from engineering division. A much more subtle form of this is shown in Belle. Asante uses Dido’s alienation from other black people to examine the debilitating effects of her privilege. We see this with the servant, Mabel. Dido deliberately avoids talking to her. Dido’s cousin Elizabeth has no issue with thanking Mabel, but to distinguish herself from other black people, to exert her unsure upper class status, Dido has to scowl at Mabel for having the audacity to stare at a gentlewoman. Asante shows that it’s difficult to be self-aware when Dido has to constantly prove herself to the white, male, classist society that imposes its values on her. Mabel reaches through the barrier by offering to teach Dido how to brush her hair. Until now, Dido has had no other meaningful onscreen contact with any person of colour. She has until then been alone with her skin, her hair, and her struggle. What Mabel does helps her awaken to and at long last embrace her blackness.
In Belle, Asante walks a very fine line between presenting white allies with sympathetic eyes, and glorifying them as emancipators for the black damsel in distress, taking the agency from Dido and giving the credits to the white men. Belle started out with John Davinier, an abolitionist, being quite patronising to Dido, accusing her of not being more aware of the reality around her. Because of her de facto isolation from other black people, John Davinier, need I stress again, becomes the white man to “enlighten” her on the plight of the African slaves. After Oliver Ashford, describes her white blood as her “better” half, finding respect from John Davinier for her black heritage almost risks handing him the power to accept her instead of the other way around.
Perhaps we should give Amma Asante more credit than to accuse her of simply pandering to the white man’s ego. What Asante does is refuse to reduce racism to a few clearly defined villains. To the racial discrimination and power imbalance that show their ugly faces in her characters’ personal lives, Asante has presented love and respect as a seemingly uncomplicated but kind answer through her empathetic lens.