Black Feminist in Public: Filmmaker Amma Asante on History, Community and Centering Black Women’s Stories

Black Feminist in Public is a new series of conversations between creative black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.

Amma Asante is a British Ghanaian filmmaker garnering an international reputation for films tackling race and gender issues. Her 2004 debut, A Way of Life, won a BAFTA award; her second film, the 2013 period drama Belle, earned critical acclaim.

Asante’s most recent two films—2016’s A United Kingdom and this year’s Where Hands Touch—shed light on the black experience in European history. Where Hands Touch, which had a limited run in theaters but is coming to DirectTV today, tells the fictionalized story of a young Afro-German girl coming of age during the Nazi era.

In advance of its release today on DirectTV, Asante spoke with Ms. about what it took to make Where Hands Touch—and what draws her to exploring history and community.

Amma Asante

Your work as a black woman filmmaker is so important right now. It matters when we have a black woman behind the movie camera.

Oh yes, it does. The character of Leyna in Where Hands Touch, she is the center of her own story. She is the driving force. She is not saved by anyone. She’s the champion of her own story and that makes me feel proud.

Let’s talk about casting. Leyna is played by Amandla Stenberg, who seems to be having quite the year right now. We’re also having interesting conversations—and there was some controversy when Cynthia Erivo, an Afro-British actress, was cast to play Harriet Tubman. Some African Americans had an issue with that, even though, of all the controversies behind your film, no one had a problem with Stenberg, an African American, portraying an Afro-German.

I have had some conversations with some Afro-Germans, who are much smaller in numbers than African Americans, so we hear about it less, but I get your point. I think everything has become so polarized that we’re not listening to each other. But I also think we’re in a good space to have these conversations because when I started out in the industry, we weren’t even telling our stories. Now we are in a wider African diaspora where we get to complicate black identity.

Amandla Stenberg as Leyna in Where Hands Touch.

When did you first encounter the history behind Where Hands Touch?

As I was finishing my first movie, A Way of Life, I was thinking about my next project and what that should be. Because I shot my film in South Wales, which had some of the oldest black communities in Europe, it dawned on me that I really didn’t know much about any of these communities. And although I didn’t know a lot about African American history, I knew more about that history than I did about the history of those who, like me, have been born and raised in Europe.

I wanted to know more about these communities, and I thought I could just Google some key terms. Despite the fact that I wasn’t very specific in my search, an image kept coming up of this Afro-German girl standing amongst a group of what I guess Hitler would have called back then white Aryan school girls. She was in a kind of classroom and wearing a school uniform. She had this completely unreadable expression on her face. I couldn’t tell if she was happy or sad.

I didn’t know what it was, and a bit like my film Belle, which was based on a painting that raised so many questions for me, I also had many questions about this little girl. Who was she? How did she get there, and what happened to her?

Did you ever find out her identity?

No. This film is a fictionalized account of research I had done. I couldn’t find out much information about who the girl was other than her image was being used in various Nazi organizations and spaces as an example of what non-Aryan facial features looked like. It was the context of this little girl surrounded by whiteness that you see in the film. We explore what that meant for her but also what that means for Afro-Germans today. What’s their sense of identity?

What were you able to find out about this era?

I began a very long and slow period of research—and every assumption that I had, looking at that little girl, was being smashed. I thought Afro-Germans would be at the bottom of the food chain, and what I discovered was that they were not as low as Jewish people, who were Hitler’s absolute focus and target. So, my understanding was that if you were black and biracial and you lived during that period in Germany, you walked a tight rope. But if you kept your head down, and you didn’t meet the wrong SS officer at the wrong time, you could very well survive in a way that a Jewish person couldn’t, and that confused me given the status of other people of African descent around the world at that time.

That’s why the research took a long time. I wanted to wait until I had enough under my belt before I then went and found Afro-German survivors of the Holocaust and sat down and interviewed them.

How long did it take you to do this film?

In total, it took me 12 years to bring the movie to fruition. Where Hands Touch should’ve been my second film, but was deemed too big for me by the powers that be. One of the reasons why this was a passion project for me was that it was a follow-up from A Way of Life, and that first film was really focusing on a social crime, representing a dangerous direction that Western society seemed to be heading. By the time the first images from Where Hands Touch were released this year, we had arrived at that place that I was afraid we would get to, where people felt more comfortable expressing their racist views that never really went away but were nonetheless suppressed as inappropriate views to have. People feel comfortable again expressing these views.

What I was trying to say with my first movie, and obviously what I’m trying to say with this movie, is that assumptions, propaganda, pathways that lead to dehumanizing fellow citizens—all of these elements can destroy a society.

It’s uncanny how relevant Where Hands Touch seems to be for our own era.

Nazi Germany was an animal eating its own tail. When we speak about Jewish people, often times we speak about them in Nazi Germany as if they were an outside entity; but they weren’t, they were citizens of Germany and Europe. They were part of the fabric of Germany. Part of what I was afraid of was getting to this place where mob rules could gain a very loud voice, where we were comfortable using propaganda as an argument to sideline and marginalize anything we don’t like the idea of.

Your film met with controversy on social media quite early, even before a movie trailer was released, the assumption being that you were supposedly “romanticizing” Nazis. Could you clarify what you wanted to say with Where Hands Touch?

For those who care to engage with the movie, what you see I think is something a lot more complex and unique, and I think that what was fundamental to me was to explore in Where Hands Touch what persecution looks like and what searching for an identity looks like as you’re coming of age without a community.

Could you say more about being without community?

Often times when we’ve looked at persecution, particularly with black people, we’ve often done it within the context of our people having a community. I think what was stressful for me was the idea that the majority of Afro-German children were experiencing this very unique period and they didn’t know each other. They didn’t know another person who was like them. When I reflect on who I am today, raised in a majority white neighborhood in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s in London, I at least had my parents, who were from Ghana. I had my older sister and brother to look to for examples of black womanhood and black manhood. Imagine going through persecution without that kind of community.

Your comments actually remind me of your other film, Belle, in which our titular character, Dido Elizabeth Belle, deals with both issues of being with and without a community. I absolutely loved that movie.

Aw, thank you.

Asante directing Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the starring role of Belle.

Earlier this year, I had a chance when I was in London to visit the Kenwood House where Dido Belle was raised, and then also when I was in Edinburgh, I was able to make a tour up to Perth at the Scone Palace, where her eighteenth-century portrait hangs.

Oh wonderful! I’m glad you did that. Isn’t the portrait beautiful?

Yes, it is—and let me tell you, at both estates I was just amazed at the way, because of your movie, they have now centered Dido Belle in their official tours.

That was my absolute goal, and I’ll tell you why.

I didn’t get to see the real painting until we were about to start filming. I spent three years on the script doing research, and I only ever saw a print, and so I said: “We’re not going to make this movie without me seeing the real thing, it’s time now.” I get on a plane with my production designer and we head over to the palace in Perth. And we’re taking the whole tour of the palace, and we’re being led around, actually by an ex-police woman who is part of the security detail. She walks us around the whole palace and then suddenly we’re just there. We’re in the room with Dido Belle’s painting, and we have no warning, and she says, “there it is, right there.”

And I look up, and this painting that has lived with me for years is now suddenly hanging slightly above me, and I just start to cry.

It’s a surreal moment, I remember.

Belle hadn’t been made at this point. It’s about to be made. But this woman is looking at me and my white male production designer, who’s also crying as well, and I feel like she’s thinking: What is wrong with them? She didn’t warn us, so to me I needed a buildup.

Secondly, there was a group tour that was also being taken around separate from us, and when they got to the room, the tour guide did not point at Dido Belle’s painting. He talked about many other elements of what was going on in that room but not at any point did he say anything about Dido Belle’s painting. I thought to myself, this has to change.

I’m so glad that several months later we were able to finish the film and get that movie out. As you say, it’s a huge difference now when you go to both of those spaces. Thank you for noticing that.

That’s the power of movies, which is why I think your work is so important because I see Belle as doing the work of placing black women’s stories at the center, and specifically at the center of British culture and history.

Absolutely. I think that the key thing, with all of these stories and even with, for instance, the Seretse Khama story in A United Kingdom, although it’s a black man, is that we have been there, during key moments in history. We’ve been there, but we’ve been erased—and I think that when we hear this in documentaries, when we read this in books, when we read this in essays, it becomes an intellectual exercise. I think that what movies allow us to do, and of course novels but I think more so with movies because they combine several art forms–music, moving image, the spoken word–they tap into our emotional being.

Your movies still have that intellectual heft, but the emotional work is definitely important. I see that you’re doing similar work with Where Hands Touch, or with any of your movies.

Movies allow you to walk for two hours in somebody’s shoes. It’s important to be able to tell the intimate stories, or at least the interior stories, of those women’s lives, whether some of it is guessing work or some of it has to be fictionalized.

I’m not a historian, but I love engaging with history to get as much as I can to platform the movie that I’m going to make. That’s exactly what I’ve done with Where Hands Touch.

Janell Hobson is professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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