By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, March 12, 2018
With the final two words of her Oscar acceptance speech - "inclusion rider" - Frances McDormand set off a charge of optimism, that film casts and crews will become more diverse. But Amma Asante, the British writer/director (Belle, A United Kingdom), isn't sure she buys it.
"What we're talking about is power sharing," Asante said in an interview last week in Toronto.
"The sexual assaults, the making of women's lives difficult in the workplace - that's part of a holistic problem of exerting power over people you deem to be powerless. This current moment boils down to where people want to hold on to their power and where they're interested in sharing it."
Men are saying "we're listening," and that's great, Asante goes on. But they also have to speak up. (As of this writing, those tweeting support for inclusion riders, which stipulate a percentage of diverse hires, are overwhelmingly not white men.) As well, when producers and financiers are perusing lists of directors, will they now set aside the usual names, and hire a woman and/or person of colour? Will the white men who are set aside be fine with working less?
Our interview took place at TIFF's Lightbox HQ, where Asante was about to screen A United Kingdom as part of the organization's Books on Film series.
(The next event, on March 26, features James Ivory, who just won an Oscar for writing Call Me by Your Name; he'll discuss his film Maurice.) Asante, 48, was warm and friendly. She never raised her voice. She smiled often. Tall, slender, strikingly intelligent, she wore a chic denim jumpsuit and high heels. Her skin glowed. She's not a cynic. She's just too familiar with well-intentioned promises that go nowhere.
Asante grew up in South London in the 1970s, the daughter of immigrants from Ghana. (Her father was an accountant; her mother a shopkeeper.) "My parents were invited to England, but not welcomed," she says. Racist acts were a constant in her childhood: Neighbours put feces and lighted matches through their mail slot so often, Asante's father installed a metal tray underneath so the carpet wouldn't catch fire.
People scrawled graffiti on their door, and systematically took their car apart: One day, there would be no windshield wipers; the next, the tires would be flattened.
Her brother was denied access to a school that had accepted him. ("That was such a part of life, the struggle to be educated if you were a person of colour in the U.K. at the time," Asante says. "It was normal.") Her own tap-dance teachers excluded her from her recital: "They told me I couldn't be in it because the song was called Blue Eyes, and I don't have blue eyes," she says. "I was under 10, so I didn't understand."
Her parents did, of course, but they never made a big deal of it; they wanted their kids to feel safe.
"They understood themselves to be visitors on someone else's turf," Asante says. "They negotiated an existence." Yet, for people who are black and British, she adds, "ours wasn't an unusual story." The lightness in her tone deepens the impact of that sentence.
After the tap-dance disgrace, Asante's parents enrolled her in a stage school, where she studied singing, dancing and drama as well as academics. "It hurt like hell," she says. "As a shy person, to be pushed to come out of yourself is painful. But after a year I started to come into my own."
She landed a three-year role in the British school TV drama Grange Hill. The late Anthony Minghella was a script editor. "I watched him become a writer, then a director," Asante says. (He made, among others, The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley.) "Somewhere in my head that resonated. I couldn't think, 'That's what I will become.' I just knew I admired him. And that what he did must be satisfying."
When Asante began to write, her scripts weren't directly autobiographical, but she wove her experience with exclusion into them. Her first film, A Way of Life, looks at why poor white children in South Wales kill a Turkish neighbour; it won her a BAFTA for most promising newcomer. In Belle, she delivers a regal, mixedrace heroine (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who was beloved at home but belittled by the world, with a guardian (Tom Wilkinson) much like her own father. "My films are not, 'These are the bad people,' " Asante says. "They're, 'Who are we as a society?' That question can be uncomfortable." That's a tricky thing about inclusion, Asante continues: It isn't just about which people are represented on screen, but how they're presented. When she was making A United Kingdom, she had to fight to ensure that Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a Botswanan king who married a white British woman (Rosamund Pike), wasn't exoticized. "I insisted, 'In this film, we are going to treat him as if he were Tom Cruise playing John Kennedy,' " she says.
Going a step further, people of every gender need to reflect on the definitions of "genius" and "brilliant" that we've internalized. "Ask yourself, how many times have you heard a female director being referred to as a genius, or a black writer being called brilliant?" Asante asks. Then ask yourself how talent is nurtured.
"Shifting slightly who's in front of the camera, and who's behind it - that alone can't fix things," she says. "It's about, once I've gotten the confidence of a studio or financier, will they allow me to tell my story in the way I want to tell it? If I succeed, will they deem my talent transferable to a film with a bigger budget, as happens with white men?
"It's not unusual for female filmmakers to go 10 years between their first and second film.
Like I did," Asante goes on. "I recently told that to a male director at a dinner party, and he practically fell off his chair." He sputtered, "But how did you survive?" She replied, "That's a good question to ask."
"It may take him two or three years to do what it takes 10 for me," Asante says. "So he gets to hone and build his skills; he gets to become the genius. It's nigh on impossible for a woman to reach her fifth movie. In statistical terms, I make up less than one per cent of our industry. And that's including African-American women. As a black British woman, the number is so small, I'm an apparition."
Asante's fourth film, Where Hands Touch - about a biracial teenager (Amandla Stenberg, who plays Rue in The Hunger Games) trying to survive in Nazi Germany - is due later this year.
She's developing two limited series, plus a movie set in 1970s Europe. Many producers call her to request meetings, but she can always tell who's serious and who's just ticking boxes.
"I look at the work they've produced, how they've applied themselves to the true meaning of diversity," she says. "Don't pat yourself on the back because you've had coffee with a woman director or someone with disabilities. See their project through to fruition. Then I'll pat your back for you. In the real world, it's still, 'The song's called Blue Eyes and you don't have blue eyes.' " Which brings us back to those inclusion riders. "Everyone may not be comfortable with them," Asante says. "But you know how you get comfortable with something? By doing it. Being uncomfortable is not your privilege anymore. I hope that's where this will go. We'll just have to wait and see."
British writer and director Amma Asante, known for such films as Belle and A United Kingdom, says that for the film industry to change, men have to speak up, not just listen.
FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL