Amma Asante : School's out for Amma

She is the first black woman to direct a British feature; not bad, says Matthew Sweet, for a Grange Hill graduate
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The Independent Culture

I first met Amma Asante a year ago in a grubby caravan parked on a stretch of tarmac near a derelict hotel in Cardiff city centre - and I could hardly hear her speak for the banging, giggling and screaming.

It was the last day of the shoot for her debut feature film A Way of Life, a tough new British picture about teenage gang violence in South Wales, which, at the climax of the 2004 London Film Festival, left Asante clutching a bunch of enthusiastic reviews, the inaugural UK Film Talent Award and a crisp cheque for £15,000.

The movie was budgeted so modestly that the cast and director were obliged to share a single trailer. As we sat, trying to have a sensible conversation about her career, about her interest in the relationship between poverty and racism, and about, you know, the state of British cinema, the thin partition wall dividing us from her five young principal actors started to buckle visibly as a weighty object - a sixth actor, possibly - was hurled violently against it.

The final scheduled scene, a sequence in an empty office-block - re-dressed with blue signage and extras in bandages in order that it might play the part of a hospital - was an hour or so away. After that, Asante was set to fulfil her last duty of the day: taking her gaggle of adolescent discoveries to the wrap party at a local hotel. A Jacuzzi, she said, with a little trepidation, would be involved. "I've begged them to be good," she admitted. "I'm sure they will be."

They were. And, one year later, that same gang of rowdy teenage actors - a little less rowdy, and a little less teenage - is lolling with the director in the tea room of a Mayfair hotel whose upscale qualities are marred only by the harp-solo version of "The Wind Beneath My Wings" being piped through loudspeakers.

"It's not the real world, you know," Asante whispers, gesturing around the room. "That's what I have to keep saying to the kids. Having somebody stroke your face every day and help you get dressed, cars to pick you up and take you everywhere. It's not the real world." She quickly corrects herself: "I should call them young men and women, really. But that makes me feel so old."

If you're about 30 years old, you'll probably recognise Asante. In 1985, she enrolled at Grange Hill under the name of Cheryl Webb, joining the regular cast just in time to see Zammo Maguire breathe his heroin-addled, freeze-framed last under a Space Invaders machine. (And yes, she sang on that record.)

Three terms in Phil Redmond's children's drama allowed her to graduate to other acting work in series such as Desmond's and Birds of a Feather, but by the time she'd reached her early twenties she was convinced that her talents were better deployed on the other side of the camera. Brothers and Sisters, a well-regarded but poorly scheduled BBC2 drama series centred on the members of a Baptist congregational choir in Liverpool, remains the most significant entry on her television CV.

Asante scripted and produced the series for two years, which - shamefully and amazingly - made her the first black woman to take both the writer and producer credit on a British TV drama. A Way of Life, as far as either of us can tell, makes her the first black woman to direct a British feature film.

Racism is a subject at the core of A Way of Life. Unlike most recent British films to tackle the theme, however (East is East, Anita and Me, Wondrous Oblivion), Asante's picture declines to flatter the audience by treating the issue as a problem from history.

Its central character is Leigh-Anne Williams (Stephanie James), a young single mother living in a dank, damp flat somewhere near Swansea, who blames her problems - her poor accommodation, her meagre benefits, her lack of work - on immigrants in general and her neighbour Hassan (Oliver Haden) in particular. "Pakis" is her favourite term of abuse, though Hassan is about as Pakistani as Shirley Bassey.

The film opens with a harrowing scene of the teenager and her friends kicking Hassan to death on a suburban street, with Leigh-Anne parking her push-chair at the side of the road before joining in the fracas. "I did think, as I was writing it," Asante confesses, "that I might be accused of giving a voice to racists. And my decision was to take that on the chin, if that was the accusation; because I think it's a worthwhile story to be told. If we gag people we'll never get to the bottom of our problems."

Asante knows a thing or two about racism herself. She grew up in Streatham, south London, when the National Front was at its most muscular and hers was one of only two black families on the street. She admits to having encountered the problem with her own family, who once objected to her relationship with a Turkish boyfriend.

"His family and my family were very similar," she recalls. "So similar that they conspired to separate us. The issues they had with each other were colour issues. So this film is about my dad saying, 'Don't go out with that Turkish boy because Turkish boys carry knives.' It's about his parents saying, 'Don't go out with that black girl because they all get pregnant at 15.' But I also wanted to write about teenagers, about the rise there seems to have been in crimes committed by young girls. I didn't want to tell a story that was just black and white. I'd be pleased if it made people feel uncomfortable."

She never intended to direct A Way of Life herself. She wrote the script and planned to produce it, hawking the document around potential backers - sometimes with less than encouraging results. "People either really liked it or just hated it. I had one senior financier pass a message on to me saying, 'This girl can't write.'"

Then the UK Film Council offered her a place on a director's course. After completing that, she allowed herself to be persuaded to take on the extra responsibility with A Way of Life.

Now the film is finished, she says, it has given her new confidence, changed her views about her own abilities and subtly altered her relationships with her family. "I think it's changed the way they look at me," she reflects. "My dad, particularly. He was a bit shocked, I think, that his youngest child had done something like this. I don't think he ever really understood what I did when I was working in television, but seeing the film changed that. It has my name on the screen at the beginning and the end."

Less expectedly, A Way of Life has also allowed Asante to conquer her fear of flying - "I don't think about that in the same way now, because I've never been as frightened as when I had to make my film." The next time she goes behind a camera, she'll do so without feeling sick with nerves. And if she's lucky, she might even get a caravan all to herself.