Q&A with Amma Asante
The talented director of A United Kingdom
Amma Asante’s impressive latest effort, A United Kingdom (starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike), is unquestionably the best film of 2017. The true story of a bi-racial love affair that faced fierce opposition and an international diplomatic crisis in the 1940’s, Asante has created an extraordinary and sensitive recounting of how the couple, forced to defend their marriage, in so doing helped change the world.
PROVOKR talked to the award-winning director about A United Kingdom, the path that led her to writing and directing, her advice for female filmmakers and what project she’ll be working on next.
Who are your greatest influences?
My father is probably my greatest influence. I grew up learning so much from our conversations together about life, politics, and human nature. He was a man who understood the necessity for cultural detail, but also the universality that all human beings share.
Did your acting experience as a kid influence you to direct?
For sure. I wouldn’t be directing today without having previously been an actress. I wasn’t a very good one, but I was surrounded by very talented actors who allowed me to recognize what a good performance looks like. Being a child actor allowed me to understand the power of a story and compelled me to want to be a storyteller.
Where do you find inspiration?
I get a lot of inspiration from life, history, politics, and I’m always inspired by filmmakers such as Ken Loach, Julie Dash, David Lean and Spike Lee. Art inspires me too—particularly music—all kinds from classical to rap, paintings and photography.
How were you drawn to the story of A United Kingdom?
David Oyelowo called me one evening to pitch me the idea, because he had read the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams, that the film is based on. He sent me a photo-essay of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams—images of them in both London and Botswana. I was intriuged by the story, particularly after finding out that Seretse went on to lead his country, then a British colony, into independence. The book really blew me away and inspired me to want to project this story up on the big screen. Her ability to mix the love, the politics and the journey to indepence was simply brilliant.
How did you find the critical balance of a powerful love story and a brutally unfair racial situation?
I am deeply romantic and I’m in love with love stories. However, it would have been impossible to show the power of Seretse and Ruth’s love without understanding the weight of the political opposition and injustice that stood against them. Once I decided the best way to go was to show precisely the measure of power that stood against the couple in order to show how powerful and courgeous their love was, the balance in the film was easier to find. The trick was to ensure that whenever we show the politics in the film, it’s always done through the prism of the couple’s love and their dignity and strength.
You are on a wonderful path and carrying a vital message and revealing incredible stories. What’s next?
My next film is set in 1944 Berlin, and tells the story of a teen girl of color (Amandla Stenberg) who is growing up during the Third Reich. She is the child of a German mother and African father and exists at a time in Germany when all so called ‘Aryan’ German children were compulsorily in the Hitler Youth by law. The film is set against the historical backdrop of the isolated children of color, who mainly did not know each other, and who were labeled ‘Rhineland Bastards’ or ‘Hitler’s problem.’ It charts how Amandla Stenberg’s character comes of age in a life-threatening environment because she stems from one of the groups who were persecuted alongside Jewish people and others deemed ‘non-pure’, by Hitler.
Any advice for aspiring female directors and storytellers?
The figures show that it’s tougher for us, so belief in one’s self and one’s stories is really important. Tenacity is really important. Ensuring that the stories you choose to tell are stories that matter to you, because it often takes such long time to lift a project off the ground. There are so many ups and downs and rejections along the way, that you need a good basis of love for your project to keep you holding on and persevering even when times are tough.