Amma Asante is one of the U.K’s most vibrant storytellers. The Ghanaian-British artist boasts a name well-known across multiple avenues. From being a former child actress to becoming a fully fledged BAFTA-winning director and writer. Signature films such as A Way of Life, Belle, A United Kingdom, and Where Hands Touch have cemented her voice as one to reckon with. Though recent years have brought Asante great success on television, or rather streaming. She directed two episodes in season 3 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and is currently riding fresh off her two episodes of FX’s Mrs. America.
Mrs. America is a part of FX’s original content exclusive to Hulu. The 9 episode historical miniseries follows the infamous conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and those who support/ oppose her rally against the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s. Yes, the same act that would guarantee legal gender equality for women and men. The miniseries boasts a star-studded supporting cast with Elizabeth Banks, Uzo Aduba, Rose Byrne, and Sarah Paulson among more. The FX original also features a female director behind each episode: the duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck along with Janicza Bravo, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and, of course, Amma Asante.
We were blessed enough to have Asante for an exclusive interview. We reflect on her growth as a filmmaker and Mrs. America‘s unique place in her filmography. Asante also gives insight on telling the story of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to US congress. Politics, revelations, and controversy lie ahead!
Years ago, you gave an insightful TED talk and described yourself as working in a field that “statistically does not include” you. You originally didn’t fit in the category of what “filmmakers” are generally expected to be. Since that talk, you have directed more films and have even dived into television. I have to ask, has the work felt nonstop or, since saying those powerful words, do you think there hasn’t been enough industry improvement?
AA: What I will say is, at the point that I gave that TED talk, I had made my first film. I had done okay with the first film and won some awards, but then I had gone on a 10 year gap before I was able to lead my second film. What was going through my mind was so much. Would I have been able to get better and how would I have honed my skills if I continued to work in that 10 year gap? Maybe like how some of my male and white male counterparts would have. So by the time I gave that talk, I really made up my mind that I was just going to take whatever it took. I was going to do whatever I could to try and catch up, you know? Try and be where I thought I should have been if I would been able to make movies in that 10 year period.
So it’s definitely been very, very busy. I’ve been extremely busy and I definitely have not felt short of work at all. I suppose the question comes now in terms of the struggle that one goes through to get projects financed, made, and marketed – what kind of films you’re allowed to make when you still come from a group that’s marginalized. That’s really where I’m experiencing a world that isn’t perhaps as simple as it could be when you don’t come from a marginalized group.
Right and now it’s even more different considering the pandemic. Even before Covid-19, marginalized people have constantly faced more hurdles than white men in the film industry. Now that we’re in a pandemic, how has this effected your work on upcoming projects?
AA: I feel it’s difficult to know completely. I need to speak to more directors at the moment. It’s been a quiet time in terms of reaching out. It’s a really sad thing that happens sometimes. Right now, I feel like I’m in a pretty similar place to the rest of my compadres, if you will. It’s tough for everybody right now. We are in a transition and we just don’t know what the outcome is going to be. So I’m still talking to producers as much as I ever did. I’ve also got projects bubbling as much as they ever did. Though that feel of what everybody is sharing, wherever they’ve been in this state of clay in terms of getting movies financed – it’s just going to get harder for everybody. And of course, if you’re already experiencing difficulty, then any additional difficulty just makes it even harder.
What I’ve been thinking about a lot during this time as well, as the world goes through collective experiences in ways that we are now, with all the loss and devastation – I feel like great films become more important. I feel like the need for me to try and push hard to get my story told becomes even more vital and imperative. Our movies now are going to be landing on a different kind of landscape. There is going to be a new kind of empathy, a new understanding of our humanity and fragility. Things are going to change. I don’t think in my lifetime, I don’t know anything that we’ve been through quite as collectively as Corona. These are interesting, but very uncertain times.
Mrs. America is the most recent project people can see your work in. You directed 2 out of the 9 episodes in the miniseries. Naturally, it’s somewhat controversial because the main subject, Phyllis Schlafly, has quite the legacy. Given your own unique history in politics and upbringing as a Black woman, what was it about Mrs. America that drew you in?
AA: First and foremost, It’s always been part of who I am as a storyteller to believe that stories can do at least three things. They can either challenge, reflect or mirror if you like, or they can offer you an escape. Oftentimes, one of the things that I’m trying to do is break down what society is, you know? Trying to reflect what society is made up of and that isn’t always controversial nor comfortable. Often we’re rooted with our heads in the sand, not really understanding how we got to where we are today. Sometimes we need to shine light on the roots you come from. We need to pull the curtain back and really study, engage, and investigate. And sometimes that means going to really uncomfortable spaces, with people and circumstances that make us feel uncomfortable.
I was drawn to the project because I was really interested in attempting to show the women’s movement in the context of what this is, because it’s a TV show. It’s a miniseries. These are hour-long episodes. Within this context, to try and show the movement as three-dimensionally as possible. To show the really great, the really bad, and the stuff that sometimes is a little hard to watch. So first and foremost, I was drawn in for that reason. Secondly, I was really fascinated with the idea that writer Dahvi [Waller] wanted. While telling the overall story of the movement, she wanted to really focus on one woman per episode. When they talked to me about it and the fact that they were going to be doing an episode centered on Shirley Chisholm – my first response was, “Okay, I’m going to come on board and that’s the episode I’m going to need to have”.
The third thing, what I love about any project I work on: I do as much research as possible. I come to these projects with what I know and what I don’t know. I loved that process of my landscape becoming more complex, bigger, and wider. Because with these stories, I can exercise real muscles that I had previously worked really hard on. I can start to work new muscles as well by experiencing circumstances, stories, and histories that I didn’t know before.
Speaking of Shirley Chisholm there, you mentioned that you had to direct the episode focused on her. From your point of view, I can imagine that there must have been a sense of responsibility or urgency as a storyteller?
AA: I mean, by the time I came on board, the episodes were still being written. When I entered talks with producers Stacey Sher and Coco Francini, I was given episodes 1 and 2 to have a look at and see what my thoughts were. The episodes were still coming together, the writing was still happening. So I think I just got in there early and I’m really glad I did. “Hey, this one’s gotta be for me”! (laughs)
Look, as artists, we don’t always want to have to see a responsibility with every piece of work we do, that we’ve done. And we should not have to. But the reality is that the landscape is laid out in such a way that we are left with responsibility quite often. It’s something that I’ve chosen not to be afraid of. It definitely doesn’t mean you always get it right or people always love what you do. Sometimes they don’t, but you’ve got to try.
And I felt that I was in a good position to be able to tell her story. I knew a lot about her. We definitely know about her in the UK, her family is from the Caribbean. Her story is a reflection of what so many women of color experience today. The complexities of what it’s like to be at the intersection is something that is an everyday reality. For so many, if not, all of us. I felt as a woman of color: why not me? I remember what someone said to me about a film I did, a film that I hadn’t written and was coming on board as a director. I said to her, “You know, I’ve really thought long and hard about whether or not I should do this film”. I wasn’t totally sure whether I should do it. My friend who happened to work at CNN, and is a wonderful journalist, said to me, “If not you then who?” And so why not me?
Each episode of the series has a woman behind the camera, which is basically still unheard of in today’s landscape. Two of them, yourself and Janicza Bravo, are Black women. I would have to imagine that this also drew you to the series or was that something that formed after you had already joined?
AA: That’s a really interesting question. First of all, I was very aware that I was talking to two women producers. When I was first invited on board, there was something that felt very wonderful and special about that. At this point, I didn’t know who any of the other directors were apart from Anna [Boden] and Ryan [Fleck] who were doing episodes 1 and 2. So the ease in which Stacy and Coco wanted to include me as a woman of color, as a Black woman, just felt really reassuring and very, very comfortable. And very, very natural as well.
So that was first and foremost of what I can remember feeling. When I discovered that Janicza [Bravo] was involved, I think it may have been on my first day of pre-production. I flew to Canada from the UK and I was just happy! I was just happy that I met Laure [de Clermont-Tonnerre] who shot episodes 5 and 6. It was such a good feeling and I hope this doesn’t sound too crazy, but it felt really right in the sense of well, why not? We are all women who have a vision, a capability, and a set of skills that are, of course, perfect for this show – but are appropriate for so many other kinds of storytelling as well. For us to be able to come together and each do our episodes, to be able to exercise those skills and show what we can do, just felt really natural and right.
Actually, it’s the other stuff that feels unnatural, you know? When your blocked or asked questions like I’ve been asked before, “But can you can do the actions? We know you can do the emotions, but can you do the actions?” I was once told. That to me is the stuff that feels unnatural or feels kind of like a hiccup. Even though it’s not unfamiliar, it’s unnatural.
When dealing with such a controversial character like Phyllis Schlafly, do you believe as a creative leader, that you should integrate as much of your own personal voice, politics, and morals when directing? Many filmmakers try to be as unbiased as possible when dealing with such political topics.
AA: What was really interesting that I felt from the get-go, I knew less about Phyllis than any of the other characters. She was the individual that I knew the least about. The amount of research that goes into a show like this is so tremendous and huge. And as I learned more and more about her, my stance and belief really became that she speaks for herself. For me, it didn’t feel like there was anything I needed to do one way or the other on how audiences should and would experience her. I just felt that she speaks for herself.
Yeah she quite does…
AA: That’s very much how I approached it. Once you start to really peel all the layers, it can become very complex. There were many nights where I had this kind of complex conversation with myself. What struck me about Phyllis: to try and modify her in any way that came from me as opposed to the script, what the writers were doing, what I understood of her in just a straight up way – not in a way where my political views might cloud her, that seemed very unfeminine. As a woman who believed in the certain needs of women, her voice really tells us all we need to know about who she was. My job was just to show her.
I didn’t even feel like I needed to reveal her, her character does that for itself. Her character reveals itself in various choices and actions. You have got to remember that she’s controversial. She was a woman who was fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment. The idea that women and men should be equal was something that was not comfortable for her and something that she stood against. Yet, she left her children at home. She traveled around the country in order to express, communicate, and convey that view to other women. That’s quite interesting that she was doing what she did not necessarily expect or wish for other women to have the opportunity to do.
AA: In the end, it all speaks for itself.
A lot of the characters in your directorial work can go back to the phrase of “not fitting in the category of what is originally expected”. From Belle, A United Kingdom, to even The Handmaid’s Tale. Now Mrs. America also falls in line with the rest of your work, but with a twist.
AA: It goes back to what I was saying about really wanting to peel back the layers of what really makes a society operate. What is the nature of society and particularly that of today? How we experience what we’re experiencing today and why? Sometimes that does mean to look back at the pathway that got us here in the first place. Looking at people and characters that have always existed, but haven’t really been given a platform to be seen or heard. To be seen or heard can come because you’re saying great things or because you’re saying things that many, many people might not agree with. But we need to first know that you exist in order to be able to challenge you.
Right and Mrs. America has had this same effect with Phyllis Schlafly herself.
AA: While there are many people, those of us are alive today, who might have known who Phyllis Schlafly was, there are many who just don’t. Being able to sort of introduce aspects of her that people may have not necessarily been completely knowledgeable about, I think is interesting. For all of my projects, Belle for example, I thought it was very, very important. I really wanted to tell a story and say: yes, she was rare, but she existed. Not only did she exist, but she has an impact on who we are as a British society today. Who we are to a certain extent on America
You tell these stories, but for different reasons. Sometimes people need to know about the characters and types of people that exist. We need to be a dialogue about their thoughts. Or there already is a dialogue about their thoughts, but we don’t know where it all came from. We don’t know why we are where we are today. Sometimes it’s because voices have been so suppressed, someone like Dido Elizabeth Belle or how Sir Seretse Khama got to create an independent Botswana [see A United Kingdom]. In our culture, the best stories are never told. It could not be more important to have these conversations.
Right and who else to tell these stories but us?
AA: Yeah, exactly!