Talking to Amma Asante is an experience that makes one astutely aware of the possibilities of the world around them. Treading the line between auteurism and the mainstream, the British filmmaker’s expertise has always lay in reminding modern audiences of where we’ve been and where we could be going, like guiding a funambulist across a tightrope. After a string of films exploring overlooked stories from throughout Black history—a young Black girl who finds herself in a Nazi camp (Where Hands Touch), an African prince caught in the web of forbidden love (A United Kingdom)—Asante has her sights set on an adaptation of David E. Hoffman’s Billion Dollar Spy—a cold-war thriller telling the true story of espionage-agent Anton Tolkachev.

Below, Asante talks with A Rabbit’s Foot about the artists that give her courage, the importance of living with intention, and her vision for a potential James Bond film.

Amma Asante

A lot of your films are told via love story, whether it be the familial or the romantic. What is the significance of that to you?

Amma: I suppose what I’m always trying to do, mostly for myself, is to hold on to some element of hope. We’re not living in the past, we’re living in the now. So many of my films ask the questions “So? Where did we go from here? What do we do now?” We have a choice. We can either walk forward and continue by being power-hungry, greedy and discriminatory, and all of those things that my films deal with as underlying themes, or as a humanity we can choose to change. Love, for me, is a symbol for that.

Mark Kermode once said that your films engage both the heart and the head. It makes me think that although you have a strong sense of vision, there’s also a broad mainstream appeal to your work. How deeply do you consider that when you’re creating?

Amma: I think as a human being, I am a combination of both commercial and arthouse. It’s part of my natural DNA. I’m a bit commercial—a marketer’s dream in many ways—but at the same time, I am a thinker, I question things, and I don’t want things to be too easy when I watch a movie. I’m a great fan of [Michael] Haneke. He makes you work when you watch his films. I want to challenge my audiences. I never want two people to leave the movie theatre with the same opinion. But I’m offering a bitter pill, and because I want that pill to be shared to as wide an audience that I can achieve, sometimes the commercial needs to be the sugar on the pill. I am thinking about that, but never to the extent where I’m willing to compromise the work. 

What draws you to tell stories that are set in the past?

Amma: I’m an observer of the human condition, and it’s hard to observe from close-up. This morning I went to the local department store in Copenhagen. I never know what experience I’m going to have there. Sometimes I’ll get a Danish person who doesn’t want to serve me—and my view is that it is a colour thing, and a foreigner thing. Other times, the person at the counter has a big, wide-open smile and is willing to treat me as a human being. How did we get here? How did she become this way? Inevitably the answer is never just the mother, father, or even a school. There is a historical context to how that person ended up in a space where not only do they feel they don’t want to serve me but they feel like it is their right not to need to want to. History allows me to stand back and view the human condition and it still allows a hope for the future. If I was to tell some of the stories I tell about the here and the now, we might all go away and cut our wrists.

Billion Dollar Spy sounds in a lot of ways like uncharted territory for you. Why does it feel essential to you right now to make a film about Adolf Tolkachev and his experience as a spy during the cold war?

Amma: When you peel back the surface what you find is a film that sits very much inside the context of everything I’ve done before. It’s a story that explores the subject of the individual vs the nation. It explores the subject of identity, of how we find our place in society and still belong to the collective, while trying to be ourselves. That’s exactly what Adolf Tolkachev was doing; he loved his country, he didn’t love the government who was running his country. It’s a resonant story that lots of people in lots of countries can recognise.

I think I’ll go on telling these stories that look at the Collective vs the Individual because I don’t know if I’ll ever get to an answer that satisfies me on how we evolve as a set of societies. Is it through sticking with the collective or is it through stepping out and being an individual? In times gone by, it was stupid to step out because a lion would kill you. But at the same time, when we’ve evolved it’s because someone has embraced individuality, even if the revolution in the end involves the collective.

Where Hands Touch opens with a great James Baldwin quote—who are the artists that you’ll take inspiration and courage from at the times when you find yourself lacking?

Amma: I’ve been thinking about Octavia Butler a lot recently. I’ve been thinking about her courage—she was a Black woman of the kind we hadn’t quite seen before, telling her futuristic sci-fi stories…both powerful and sometimes prophetic. I’m a huge fan of Baldwin, not just for his writing, but for the writer that he was. We think about Baldwin now and we think of someone who was perpetually lauded the way we laud him now and that wasn’t necessarily always the case. I admire how he challenged humanity. I’m also a huge fan of Steven Spielberg; he has the freedom to say “I want to make a movie like The Colour Purple” and a few breaths later say “I want to make Bridge of Spies.” I think that was never going to be my lot as a Black woman [laughs] I was never going to be allowed to do that. But I want to, in some micro-version, mirror that in my career.

We live in an exciting time where we’re finally starting to embrace diversity on the screen. Of course, that doesn’t mean the work is done. What do you think is still missing from this movement that we should be striving for?

Amma: I think we still need to get to a place where we aren’t constantly looking at anybody outside of whiteness as not yet experienced enough. Then the world becomes your oyster. It’s always interesting when somebody writes that Belle was my first film when I won a BAFTA for my debut [laughs]. To this day, I’m having to work hard to remind people I didn’t just arrive. That being the situation for many more of us is really tough. We’re doing well, but we need to do more and faster. Another thing about historical pieces is that so often we’re correcting a narrative that has been mistold. Being a storyteller of colour means correcting history. Once we all feel comfortable saying that we’ve done that, then [we focus] on the freedom of having the kind of career that Steven Spielberg has, to be able to tell stories that aren’t obvious. Then the world will truly open up and be the oyster for filmmakers of colour who can tell our stories, and beyond, if we so choose to.

You’ve mentioned before that you wanted to direct a Bond movie—I’m curious as to what that film would look like and who that Bond would be.

Amma: Of course my Bond would be Lashana [Lynch]! I would like to direct a quintessential Bond movie—one of the things I wanted to do with Lashana is present her in a world where she’s surrounded by the London we know, but present it in a way where she takes ownership for it. She’s the queen of her domain in the way we see the other Bonds as quintessentially British and the kings of their domain. The world you know, but through the lens of a Black, female 007, who is as Black as I am, and as British as I am. Lashana Lynch is as much a part of the British story as Daniel Craig is, and I am as much as Sam Mendes is. 

Twice now you’ve been included in Powerlist’s Top 100 of the most influential people of African descent. Does that kind of accolade change the way you view your own place in the political artistic sphere? 

Amma: It changes things only to the extent that I’m clearer about a pathway that I was perhaps more navigating with less intention. I’m navigating the same path as I would have done regardless of whether they had named me or not, but being named makes you do what you do with more intention. We should all be living our lives with intention.

If you enjoyed this interview, check out our exclusive interview with Penelope Cruz!