Over the last decade, British director and screenwriter Amma Asante has steadily produced sensitively nuanced and grippingly dynamically depictions of the vast challenges faced by those whose existences are, incidentally, anathema to the accepted norms of the society in which they live. Through her redolent tales of illicit love and the interminable hardships of survival for those struggling with societal discrimination and prejudice, Asante sheds a haunting light on the heart-breaking demoralization of human life and dignity in varying social contexts around the world. Whilst maintaining a markedly uplifting tone in her films, Asante ingeniously raises consciousness on many issues that still face us today.
Born in London to Ghanaian parents, Asante trained in drama and dance at Barbara Speake Stage School before beginning her career in the film industry as a child actress, followed by her involvement in screenwriting after securing a number of script deals with Channel 4 and the BBC in the UK, as well as founding her production company, Tantrum Films, through which she produced her kitchen-sink debut feature, A Way of Life (2004). A raw and gripping drama about a frustrated teenage mother, Leigh Anne Williams (Stephanie James), looking after her baby in rundown Cardiff council flat with the help of her petty crime-committing brother Gavin (Nathan Jones) and his friends, the film deals with the weary protagonist’s growing paranoia that the Social Services plan to take her daughter from her, in turn causing the young mother to foster desperate delusions that her Turkish neighbour, Hassan (Oliver Haden) is involved in the baby-snatching ploy.
Opening with a group of teenagers physically assaulting a middle aged man in the middle of a street, the brutal violence and sexual exploitation of Leigh Anne’s tale is depicted with unforgiving honesty, as the tragic suicide of her mother and the physical cruelty inflicted on herself by her father in her youth are insinuated to be the catalysts of her sombrely trying experiences. Most significantly, the frequent conflicts with her grandmother, Annette (Brenda Blethyn), who deems Leigh Anne to be an unfit mother, the ceaseless confrontations with Hassan, against whom the young mother is blatantly racist and harbours a secret jealousy of the relationship he has with his daughter, Julie (Sara Gregory), and the dismal lengths to which LeighAnne goes to make money to survive, once pimping a young girl to an older man for sexual service.
In a startling scene that is emblematic of the dire severity of her predicament, Leigh Anne tells the young girl, “Just open your legs and let him do the rest”. While Leigh Anne’s commitment as a mother is unquestionable – although somewhat hapless as demonstrated by a disquieting moment during which baby Julie is burned by a candle at her home – she is far from an innocent by-stander in her riotous companions’ dubious activities. The exquisitely melancholic film garnered Asante positive recognition both in the UK and internationally, as well as a string of international accolades, including the Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer at the BAFTA Awards and the Miami International Film Festival awarded A Way of Life the FIPRESCI prize for Best Feature Film.
In her second feature film, Belle (2013), Asante crafts an evocative portrait of slavery and the road to abolitionism in the Georgian era with her biographical romantic drama inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of British naval admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African mother, who is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). The redolent tale centres on Belle’s romance with an idealistic vicar’s son while she also struggles to reconcile her aristocratic lineage with the ambiguous social position she maintains, due to the color of her skin that prevents her from participating in the traditions of her social standing. The breakthrough feature garnered Asante the Adrienne Fancey Award for Best Film at The Womens’ International Film & Television Showcase in 2013 and the Directors to Watch Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the following year.
Asante’s subsequent biographical drama, A United Kingdom (2016), based on the real-life romance between the first president of Botswana, Prince Seretse Khama and his British wife Ruth Williams Khama in the late 1940s, will be opening the 60th edition of the London Film Festival this year. The film will mark the second year in a row that a female-led British film will be featured in the festival’s opening night gala screening, demonstrating that not only Asante’s narrative sources strive to subvert cultural norms, but also her own position as a bona fide helmer transgresses existing perceptions in British film and propels the nature of the industry forward.
Currently in pre-production, Asante’s latest feature, Where Hands Touch, a romantic war drama centring on an SS Officer and a mixed-race German girl, extends Asante’s long explored theme of forbidden love and demonstrates her persistence in ceaselessly subverting culturally-inflicted restrictions of human expressions of love and interaction. Asante’s startlingly authentic and persistently enthralling depictions of trying lives are permeated with a tragic pain and touching sentimentality which marks her as an impressively daring and strikingly sincere figure in current-day British cinema.