Amma Asante is one of a handful of successful Black female directors working in Hollywood today. She’s most notably known for her critically-acclaimed film Belle, about a mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral — who is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in 18th-century England. The film stars actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead role.
Asante has also directed the UK film A Way Of Life and the David Oyelowo film A United Kingdom. I had the opportunity to meet and connect with Amma at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. She was in town to promote her latest film, Where Hands Touch— a film about a Black German girl who falls in love with a Nazi soldier. The logline to Where Hands Touch comes with some controversy and many critics formed an opinion about the film’s subject matter before the first trailer launched. The movie made its international debut at TIFF last week and Amma spoke to Black Girl Nerds about the festival, the research in putting this story together, interracial themes in her films and the controversy of its subject matter.
How has your TIFF been this year and were there any movies that were favorites of yours that you were able to catch?
It’s so tough whenever you have a movie at TIFF, particularly because our film is being released off the back of TIFF so quickly. So, you’re in those junkets, or you’re doing the rounds that you have to do. So, I tend to use TIFF to mark out the films that I want to watch in the fall. Like, the most important movies that I want to go and see, but never ever get a chance to see them while I’m there. At the same time, I kind of recognize it as a real privilege to be there when you have a movie showing there and when you are going to have a movie released. So, I took it in my stride and know that there are just so many great movies to see. I really want to see Beale Street, and so many more, which is great. And it was so nice as well to be there and to know that we had a very good representation at TIFF this year, and that was wonderful.
There was a lot of diversity but also they were a lot of films with Black women directors, which I really appreciated your film, Stella Meghie had a film there —The Weekend, Wanuri Kahiu with Rafiki, Genevieve Nnaji in Lionheart, Rashida Jones in Quincy, and A.V. Rockwell had a film called Feathers. So, yeah, it’s great to see that kind of representation happening at TIFF.
Definitely. So, from the point of view, it was great, and this is my fourth movie and my fourth world premiere at TIFF. So that was a really, really great feeling to be there in that context.
Let’s talk about Where Hands Touch, because I saw the film, and at the very beginning it states that it was based on true events. Can you tell us specifically what scenes or parts of the film are based on a true story?
Yes. So, I think, and you can correct me if I’m wrong. I think it says inspired by historical events. The historical event that I was platforming the film on was the stories about the Rhineland children, specifically their history of being born of African soldiers from the French colonies, having these white mothers, the German nationality coming down through the mothers.
So, some elements of the story I won’t go too much into whose story it is, because the person doesn’t necessarily want to be identified. I would have to get her permission completely for that. But there was an element of the story for instance where the mother is taken away. And there were some areas of that story that I took, but that I also left out from the real person’s story, because the story combines many, many people’s experiences together in one so that I could create the reality of Leyna’s context.
In other words, I wanted to really be able to show everything that Leyna was in the story and everything that Leyna wasn’t. And in order to do that, I wanted to create someone who was representing the other side. The element of a mother being taken away, because she was sent to a camp to become a good German woman, because in that particular case, that situation, it wasn’t because she wouldn’t give up her child, it’s because she wouldn’t give up her African partner. And so, I used the elements of history to gain an understanding of the world and to gain an understanding of the patterns in the stories that existed around Afro-German children. And then they’re all pulled together into this one story that examines each of the elements that I want to look at through the lens of this story.
What led you to feel compelled to tell this specific kind of story?
I had made my first movie, A Way Of Life, it was a movie that didn’t get released in the US. And the place where I made that in the UK, in Wales, had some of the oldest Black communities in Europe. And prior to really doing some research about Wales, I didn’t really know that. And I found it weird that this was a part of the United Kingdom that I lived in, but I didn’t know the history of people like me who were of the diaspora, of the African diaspora, but born and raised in Europe.
And it kind of compelled me to want to find out more about the other countries around the UK that were European, but that had communities that were from the diaspora, and to try and find out about the history of their existence, kind of going back beyond the ’60s. It dawned on me that I didn’t know a massive amount of history around African American history, but I knew more than I knew about European Black history.
I started to do research. And when I started on that research, putting the relevant terms into Google, and this term came up. This term, Rhineland bastards, or Rhineland children, came up. I realized that what I immediately did was I jumped to all these conclusions, and I made all these assumptions based on the dominant histories that I knew in terms of what the responses to how these children would’ve been treated, and then what their responses, in turn, would’ve been, and what their existences would’ve been like.
[This girl] she’s Afro-German, and she’s standing with all of these white schoolmates. I mean, literally drowning in white supremacy. And seeing the look on her face which to me is completely unreadable. So, to me, it’s kind of like, is she happy? Is she sad? What is her story? Where has she come from? What happened to her? What happened to her, is still a huge question for me. I still don’t know. That little girl’s face compelled me to tell the story.
Your film, unfortunately, got a lot of criticism long before it was screened publicly for audiences to see. Why do you think people have been so critical, and how has the response been now that people have seen it?
Yeah, it’s a good question. I think that it’s not lost on me, let’s put it that way, that I’m a woman who is Black who is telling a story in an arena where we previously haven’t had space as directors. And this has been an area that has been the white male’s area to tell these stories. On top of that, I’m placing a woman of color within at the center of this story. And I know on the surface that, that should be something that we kind of all celebrate, but I do think that when you are challenging the status quo then you are disrupting narratives.
I do believe that you are challenged in all directions. I don’t believe that it just kind of comes from one direction, or it’s just a certain type of person that does it. I think that we’re all exposed to very similar rhetoric. And I think that we are challenging that which we are aware of. But I think sometimes we’re not always clear when we’re made uncomfortable by the fact that somebody is stepping out to try and challenge a world and a narrative and a set of constructs, that are kind of well past their sell-by date. They shouldn’t exist anymore.
So some of the criticism I got was that this is not your story to tell. Well, I was telling the story of a girl of a color who was born and raised in Europe and of African descent, and that’s me. So that’s why I was interested in it. Other criticisms were, “Well, how can you tell a story of a woman who falls in love with an SS Officer?” Ultimately, what this was, was a Hitler Youth boy. Lots of people probably didn’t know what Germany did to children back then. The fact that Hitler Youth was that period of time was mandatory. And what happened to people who did not follow the system? And that is not to say, that the system was not made up of monsters. We know it was, and we know that there were the lemmings that followed and did what they had to do. We know that there were the people who could see and chose not to see.
People made categoric statements online, like, “She is telling a story about Nazis, and she has included no Jews.” Which you’ve seen the film now. You know that’s categorically wrong. One person tweeted, “Amma has cast Abbie Cornish as a biracial girl, and I really don’t know how I feel about that.”
And these made up narratives became the truth, but I knew that I was so far away from the film coming out. And I did have faith and belief that the story I had to tell was one that audiences could engage with, but I didn’t want to like yell that story out so far in advance. I didn’t want to hand over my script to the Internet and social media, and say, “Look, everything you’re saying is not what it is.” Because I spent so much on putting this film together, and I still believe that there’s an audience who could benefit from seeing it.
I think that before you can romanticize a Nazi, you have to conceive of romanticizing one, and I never conceived of it. It didn’t even cross my mind that I could create a story whereby in the way that romance dramas are, they’re aspirational. And that you would leave the cinema thinking, “I’m gonna go get me a relationship just like that.” You want Leyna to be okay, and hopefully, you will for her to be okay, but you certainly don’t come out thinking I want a relationship like that.
It was really important to me to have that compassion for Leyna. And as Oprah says, when Leyna knows better, she does better. The relationship exists to express two things, the Holocaust, and to express the fact that Leyna defies Hitler. He doesn’t want her to have relationships with people outside of her race. Well, she’s only surrounded by people outside of her race, so if she does, she then is gonna be consigned to a life of isolation alone, sitting inside of a room rotting, or does survival mean going outside of those four walls and trying to find belonging even in a space where belonging doesn’t exist? So, how do you survive? How do you survive when you don’t have the privilege of having people around you who look like you, who can counsel you, who you can bounce ideas off of?
We start with an Afro-German, and we end with an Afro-German, and that’s what’s important to me.
You’re known for creating things within your own worldview. And many of them feature interracial romances, and you’re a Black woman in an interracial relationship. How do you protect your personal life and family from the backlash and negative critics that troll about interracial families and couplings? How do you mentally shield against that vitriol?
I think first and foremost, I think intention is important, again. Where Hands Touch was supposed to be my second movie in America. I talk about this a lot. And didn’t become my second movie because it was considered to be too big for me. And the reality is, had that been my second movie, there would be the idea of interracial themes and biracial themes for me wouldn’t exist, except in the context of my story about Leyna and Lutz.
And so, being a woman who wanted to tell a story that I wasn’t allowed to tell because it’s figuratively in that space of white men, I had to go out there and prove myself. When Belle came to me and they said, “You’ve written this great script about a biracial girl who lives in Nazi Germany. Do you think you could create a story about a 19th-century biracial girl?” I said yes because I thought that, that would be the second to prove that I could tell the passion story that I really wanted to tell.
We raised two-thirds of the money, but it wasn’t enough to make Where Hands Touch, and also I’d done Belle. And so, I had to do another movie that was big and epic. And so, that they could never again say to me, “This movie is too big for you.” That became A United Kingdom. And so, I know that my intention actually is never directly being, “Oh, let me go out and tell you another interracial story. Let me go out and tell you another biracial story.” The fact is, that I have, and I think all of those stories have been worthwhile to tell. And within that context, I don’t put my family out there. The one member of my family that I do talk about a lot, and I do put out there, because she enjoys social media before she became ill, is my mom.
And other than that, I really keep a very private life. I don’t feel that the movies that I’ve made in any way try to present a particular kind of agenda. If anybody asked me the question, “Would you recommend interracial relationships?” I would say, “They’re really hard. They’re really difficult.” And there are probably easier ways you can go with relationships than to choose this. But we don’t choose who we fall in love with, right?
I’m Black, I’m British, and I’m female, is kind of another level of other. And I know that therefore with other always [comes] suspicion. What are their intentions? What are their motives? What are they trying to tell us with this piece of art, or with this film that they’re making? But knowing that my intentions are you love who you love. Who you love is not my business at all, and that actually, my journey had been a complicated, convoluted one in which I haven’t simply just been able to say, “I’m gonna make that movie next.”
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Where Hands Touch opens in U.S. theaters September 14, followed by an exclusive window on DirecTV starting December 6th. It will then stream exclusively on Hulu beginning in March 2019.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.