How Jane Austen inspired Amma Asante's films about race and class in Britain

The filmmaker discusses the opportunities for social commentary that exist in historical fiction.
A United Kingdom by filmmaker Amma Asante, left, opened the 60th London Film Festival. (Katy Swailes/CBC)
Listen to the full episode51:58

Amma Asante is known for making probing films about race and love, often based on true events. Her latest feature, A United Kingdom, tells the story of the controversial real-life romance between Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir to an African king, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white British clerk, who met in London in the mid-20th century. The film opened the 2016 London Film Festival, making Asante the first black director to receive the honour.  

For her first feature, a gritty urban drama called A Way of Life, Asante won a Bafta Award — England's equivalent to the Oscars — as well as 16 other prizes for writing and directing. She followed it with Belle, a period drama exploring the story of a mixed-race woman who had an aristocratic upbringing in 18th century England. The movie was much admired, earning Asante greater recognition, especially in the United States. 

Amma Asante spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in March, while in Toronto for TIFF's Books on Film series.

Growing up black in London

"We were one of the families on the street that were not part of social housing. I think that apart from being a black family, the fact that we also owned our home made some difference in terms of our othering being more irritating to some people. We had some very difficult situations — things like matches through the letterbox. It was very important for my father to lay trays down on the inside part of our door below the letterbox because we'd get lit matches sometimes coming through the letterbox; at least that way they would hit the metal and the flame would be put out. What I remember my father often saying to me is, 'The restrictions that other people put on your world, and who you are, are their restrictions, not yours.' Looking back today I think 'Wow!' But at the time, you just got on with it."

The subversive Jane Austen 

"At 26, I decided to take an English literature course and it was wonderful. What I loved about English literature and that class was that everybody had a completely different point of view and nobody was wrong. It fundamentally changed the way that I wrote and the way that I looked at story. Suddenly, Jane Austen — who had been somebody forced on me at school in a very non-passionate way, and who I'd found rather mundane — came alive to me. I realized how subversive she was as a writer and I realized the importance of her female voice. I then wrote my first film A Way of Life. Having explored the books in that English literature course, I wanted to write about women and explore our place in society. And I think I wouldn't have been able to look at writing and creating a story in that depth without really digging into Jane Austen."

Domestic threats 

"A United Kingdom is about the right to love who you want to love and to live where you wish to live. Ruth Williams is a clerk working in an insurance company and Seretse Khama is a king. So there's a class difference — he may be black and she may be white, but he is of a higher class than she is. At the time when they choose to go back to Africa as a married couple, what is important to understand is that she is going to be a white queen to black African women. This is at a time when Botswana, then known as Bechuanaland, is still a British colony and South Africa is about to install in its laws the policy of apartheid. There is a fear within South Africa that an influential African man is about to come back to Botswana with his white wife and that this will send a message to other Africans that white people and black people can coexist in intimate relationships. When you look into it, what you realize is it isn't just a couple that have fallen in love on their whims — it's about human rights." 

Amma Asante's comments have been edited and condensed

Music to close the broadcast program: 'Round Midnight performed by Hazel Scott.