Amma Asante's bicultural upbringing influences everything she does

Amma Asante

Award-winning writer, director and former actress Amma Asante made her name as "Cheryl" on the UK the children’s TV show "Grange Hill." But for the self-described bicultural Asante, her work and influence know no geographical boundaries.

The product of a Ghanaian upbringing in London, Asante has been disrupting the media world since she was a teen, with work including the feature film "Belle" — an exploration of slavery through the true story of the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of an enslaved African woman and a British navy captain.

You describe yourself as being bicultural. What does this mean?

Well, it means that I'm not able to separate the two cultures that have been responsible for raising me. It means that, despite the fact that I was not born in Ghana, I was still raised according to much of the culture that prevails within a Ghanaian household.

At the same time, I was educated and nurtured in the United Kingdom. I grew up in London and I'm a Londoner. Those cultures combine in me, operate separately and together to make their own energy inside me, and their own outlook, and their own gaze on the world. And that gaze is bicultural for me.

And it seems that is echoed in a lot of your work. Seretse Kharma and Ruth Williams in "A United Kingdom." You've got "Belle," and the whole of "A Way of Life." The characters are outsiders, but they find a sense of power. Was that a conscious decision on your part to look at that theme in your work?

With "A Way of Life," I think that was the first one where it was deliberate, in a sense. When I went into it, I knew I was going to be writing a film that was going to be all white, but that the world they existed in absolutely, 100 percent impacted my world.

I wanted to look at what happens when you take the actual, literal, tangible color out of a situation. Where does racism sit? And what happens if we dare to venture to look at racism as a symptom? And therefore contemplate what might be some of the many, many, many causes.

What strikes me about your work behind the camera is that there is a certain nuance to the way you treat racism in your films. You don't seem to waiver from any of your character’s humanity. How hard is it to make films that don’t show the world through a predominantly white male perspective?

Well, first and foremost, with the issue of humanity and humanizing, that wasn't necessarily something that I set out to do. All of the things that human beings do are human. Whether they're good, bad, indifferent, evil, all of those things — and that is not something of my making.

As somebody who then went on to make a film called "A United Kingdom" (that I didn't write), but I had a massive impact on in terms of making sure that film became fundamentally about independence and about what colonialism meant to the black person in that story. What I understood is that there is a certain way in which our society operates, in which the default, the patriarchy, is very good at a divide-and-rule concept. And whether that element is operating within issues of class, issues of gender, issues of race, issues of religion, issues of any kind of culture, that the power of divide and rule has always been fundamental, and integral, to keeping power within particular hands.

You can bring as much diversity into the industry as you want from the creative point of view, and that's necessary, and that's important, and you can do it in front of the camera. But, actually, if the gatekeepers are still white and male, then ultimately you're still having to deal with a point of view, and a gaze, which is very different to yours, which you're constantly having to explain in some way and when you're lucky, they get it.

To that end, how do you exercise self-care? How do you find a way to keep knocking at that door and saying, "Look, okay. We're going to do this."

That is a really good question and nobody's ever asked me that before. Early on in my career, ignorance was my greatest strength — not understanding how difficult it was going to be for me. But, at that time, I had a brilliant life coach and he was a great place for me to be able to go and unload, and also just explore and try and understand. Understanding other people's ignorance, understanding that just because people have power, it doesn't mean to say they have full understanding of everything.  

But also I think part of it is to really get real with yourself and not to spend time trying to be accepted by those who just simply are not going to accept you. It's also about making sure that I take time out away from the industry. Making sure that my weekends, where possible, or my days off, are really days off where I'm not also talking about work.  

You were an actor first, starring in "Grange Hill" and "Desmond’s" before becoming a filmmaker. Do you see any difference in how the media industry was then and now in terms of the inclusion of stories about people of color, in the UK especially?

Back then, we had the multi-cultural departments in TV, they were specifically called that. And eventually they were done away with. We did two series of "Brothers and Sisters," and I remember when that finished, the BBC sort of said, "We want to be able to have shows that include people from diverse backgrounds. Not just have shows that keep them apart from what we consider to be the mainstream." And you could definitely argue that, in some ways, they've gone on to do that. Now, I look at Thandie Newton in "Line of Duty." It's a great role for anybody, let alone a female, and let alone a female of color.

I don't have the evidence, but I don't think that that would have occurred 20 years ago. Things have certainly changed. Whether or not they've moved on, I don't know. When I'm feeling positive, what I think is that we definitely now have the ability. There isn't just one Trix Worrell. Between America and the UK, and we can even talk about parts of Europe as well, you do have Ava [DuVernay], you do have Dee Rees, you do have myself [and others]. There are definitely more of us and we could definitely have our own table, and all be at the table, and fill all the chairs. But obviously, that's not enough.

We are in a place where this could become a fad once again, or we can keep the momentum going. And when I say we, I'm not putting the weight simply on our shoulders; this is about those gatekeepers who say that they really want to see change.

The whole issue of diversity is this: I want Steven Spielberg, and I want Scorsese, and I want all of the brilliant filmmakers who happen to also be white and male that I look up to to continue to exist. And I want them to continue to tell the brilliant stories that they tell. What I'd like, however, is to be allowed to tell stories alongside them.

And I would like Julie Dash to be able to tell stories alongside them, and I would like Ava DuVernay to tell stories alongside them, and I would like Gina Prince-Bythewood to be able to tell stories alongside them. And obviously that's what we're working towards and we're doing it. But when you allow me to tell my story, as well as you telling my story, there's no problem with that.

Check back here over the next few weeks to read other interviews in our series, "The Media Disruptors," with:

April Reign (Feb. 8)

Bhakti Shringapure (Feb. 22)

Ilia Calderon (March 1)

Joanelle Romero (March 8)

Nancy Wang Yuen (March 15)

Christabel Nsiah-Buadi is the creator and Editor of “The Media Disruptors” and a public media producer. She also writes about the media, culture and politics. You can follow her on Twitter: @msama

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