LOS ANGELES — It should be one of the unqualified successes of the year — a period drama directed by, written by and starring women of color that found a large audience for a fact-based tale drawn from obscure history that shed light on the beginning of the end of the slavery era.
Behind “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Chef” at the specialized box office for the year, “Belle” recently passed $10 million as it wraps up its theatrical run ahead of a home video release in August.
Yet a dispute between director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay over the film’s writing credit, which spilled out in the British press as “Belle” opened there over the summer, has put a cloud over the film’s success. And while a movie that is part Jane Austen-style period romance and part socially conscious legal procedural might seem a likely candidate for awards momentum, the controversy could put the brakes on that prospect.
Sagay received sole writing credit on the film following arbitration by the Writers Guild of America, but calls the affair “an absolutely bizarre ordeal.”
“I feel very much that wherever I go, this issue of the credit is discussed,” Sagay said during a recent phone interview from London. “It is simply not fair that my credit should be under such a cloud that it becomes a noncredit when there is no reason. And yet as long as things are said, I’m in a position where I’m boxing shadows every day.”
Asante declined to be interviewed for this article, while producer Damian Jones did not respond to a request for comment.
Such behind-the-scenes fights are hardly uncommon, but to have a grievance after arbitration become such a public dispute is unusual, said Leslie Mackey McCambridge, senior director of credits and creative rights with the Writers Guild of America, West, especially since Asante retains the possessory director’s credit, “An Amma Asante Film.” “I’ve never seen anyone who seems to be sabotaging the success of their project,” McCambridge added.
With a star-turn performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the film tells the story of a mixed-race girl born in the 18th century to a slave mother and an English aristocrat father. Taken in by her father’s family, she comes to occupy an unusual position in English society, trapped between classes as both a woman of means and a woman of color. Her presence serves as a catalyst for her great-uncle, the lord chief justice, to make a series of legal decisions that begin to erode the economic basis of the slave trade.
Asante, a child actress turned filmmaker, won a BAFTA award for her 2004 debut as a writer-director, “A Way of Life.” Sagay, an emergency room doctor turned screenwriter, worked on the Oprah Winfrey-produced 2005 adaptation of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The two have never met in person.
Sagay first encountered a 1779 painting of a black woman and a white woman together hanging in Scone Palace in Scotland. This set her to begin researching a screenplay around 2004. The script was developed for a time by HBO, which is how the WGA came to have jurisdiction. She began to work on the project with Jones, who would also produce “The Iron Lady.”
In 2009, the project came back to the U.K., where it received funding from the British Film Institute. In 2010, Sagay left the project and Asante officially came on board.
Sagay said that she believed Asante was doing an edit and polish of her script and that she later became aware that a script was circulating without her name. The film went into production in 2012. Sagay attended the film’s world premiere at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival and sat in the audience as “Amma’s script” was spoken about from the stage during a post-screening Q&A.
Asante’s status as a director seeking writing credit triggered an automatic arbitration under WGA regulations. Following the decision in early 2013 granting Sagay sole writing credit, Asante appealed but lost. Asante has asserted in recent interviews that Jones initially sent her a postcard of the painting and that she worked only from that as inspiration. (The film’s U.S. press notes say she was sent the postcard and Sagay’s script.) Asante has frequently also brought up the number of drafts she worked on and that she worked on the screenplay on her wedding day.
“The issues that Amma has subsequently taken up with the public are things she brought up at the appeal,” said Sagay, who left the film in part due to cancer treatments that left her too weak to continue to work. “They don’t care how hard you worked or the inconvenience or how long you worked. I also worked hard.”
— Los Angeles Times
Belle Now showing at the AFI Silver Theatre. Rated PG. 103 minutes.