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Amma Asante: The Power of Defining Yourself at TEDxBrixton (Transcript)

Amma Asante at TEDxBrixton

Here is the full transcript of screenwriter and director Amma Asante’s TEDx Talk presentation: The Power of Defining Yourself at TEDxBrixton conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: The power of defining yourself by Amma Asante at TEDxBrixton


Could you please pick the odd one out? It’s not difficult, right?

Now, I mean the image you see on the screen represents, some think, a rough idea of what the British and general film-making industry looks like. You see, figures revealed by the Women’s Media Centre in New York show that across a five-year period ending in the year 2012, of the 500 top-grossing movies, only two of those had black women directors attached to them. That’s 0.4%.

And I’m thinking back now to the night before I was about to set foot on the set of my first movie ever to direct. And I can tell you now: I was absolutely terrified. And my fear pivoted around the fact that I knew that I wasn’t what was expected of a director. I didn’t fit the industry model, full stop. And I wondered how I was going to lead my all-male crew, and they were also all white, how I was going to instill confidence in them and get them to believe in me, so that I could end up with a film that I had written on screen. After all, I knew that they had never worked under anyone like me before, you know, my shape, my flavor.

And I realized, essentially, that society had created the very world that I wanted to work in as one that, statistically, did not include me. And that society, by its own boundaries and perceptions, had created me to be somebody that didn’t fit into the category of what filmmakers were generally expected to be. And yet I felt like a director. And I knew that I could craft stories onscreen and connect those stories to audiences. But the figures, they don’t lie. And the statistics, they did not tally in my favor.

Essentially, my definition of me didn’t match the definition that society had bestowed upon me. And so, who wins? And that’s what I want to talk to you about today. The question of who defines you: society or yourself?

Now, is society’s opinion of who you are, who you can be, what value you have, what you can achieve in life, is that more powerful an opinion and important an opinion than your own? If you say you are a writer, and you have something valuable to contribute to the literary world, but you know, reviewers and critics, they say, you know, you’re not, you’re not a great writer. Then whose truth wins? And whose truth is most likely to determine your future as a writer?

Well, for me, the answer is really simple. It’s whichever you choose to believe. And I have this idea that since we can all dream a far bigger dream for ourselves than society could ever indicate for any of us, what would happen if we all decided that we were going to actively define ourselves and allow that definition to govern everything, over and above anything that society could define or indicate for any of us? How would that influence our lives?

Now, you know, the question of who defines us comes up in everybody’s life at some point or another. And it doesn’t have to be about race or gender, necessarily. For me, the question embedded itself long ago. I grew up down the road from here, at a time when Brixton was being so negatively defined by society, and also defined in a way that it didn’t authentically see itself, that it practically imploded on itself, in its struggle to be heard. And, with an older brother, at the time, who was still a teenager, I experienced how it felt for some, like they were living in a police state. But yet I also witnessed how Brixton refused to be marginalized, and criminalized, as it rose up during the riots of the 1980’s and rejected this definition of the existence it should have by society’s standards.

Now, you know, defining yourself outside of the realms of society, it’s not easy. And, as a writer and director, it’s such an interesting and fascinating subject to me that it has risen to the fore of every single project I have ever worked on, and probably every single project I will ever do. And I think the reason is because it’s so complex. And I think what’s so hard about it is to recognize when your choices and your direction in life are being influenced by society’s perhaps more restricted ideas of who you should be. You know, when the mirror image of what society is suggesting to you doesn’t reflect the person that you really feel you are. Or even worse, when the untrue image that’s coming back to you does feel real. Because the messages and the influence can be so subtle that it’s just easy to dismiss. You know, this is just the way things are supposed to be. That’s what you tell yourself.

And you think about how many used that argument when it came to the transatlantic slave trade, or against the women who demanded the vote, or even today, when it comes to gay marriage. And think of how many institutions — I can think of them right now — and organizations use outdated, antiquated, biased rules to maintain the status quo. And sometimes an unjust status quo. You know, we have been doing this for X and X amount of years, so we can’t change it now, it’s just — it’s tradition. It’s a word they like to use, “tradition”.

And, you know, for me, I think that it sounds unevolved to not move forward because you think something is tradition. And yet, when society is acting to prevent you from reaching your goals and your dreams, I think that’s precisely the time you have to truly remember who you are. And the reason why I believe that, is because today, none of use emerge from just one single world. We are all a combination of many worlds put together. And sometimes, when you are at the junction of many worlds, society considers you a contradiction.

You know, growing up, as I said, down the road from here, I experienced the common story of constantly being asked: “Where are you from? Where are you from?” And I would say: “Well, actually, I was born here in London.” And then I would be harangued. “No, but where are you really from? You know, what part of London don’t you get?”

And then interestingly, I would go back to Ghana to visit both my grandmothers, with my mother during summer vacation, and I would be told: “Well, you’re not really Ghanaian, are you, because you’re too English.” And it got to the point where, at this junction that I was sitting at, I didn’t know which pathway to go down. Because, if I took one pathway, it would be rejected, if I took another pathway, that would be rejected. And it felt like, in many ways, society was defining me as an outsider.

And as I say, again, and I’ll keep saying it, you know, this doesn’t have to be solely about race or gender. We’re all at the junction of many worlds. It can be concerning race, it can be concerning class, sexuality, so many different things today. And I don’t think — I am wondering, at least, if there is a person in this room who, at least at some point in their life, hasn’t been identified outside of the realms of that which they have felt that they would see themselves, or at some point at least, hasn’t felt like an outsider. And for me, I don’t think it should be about having to pick one pathway over another. I shouldn’t have to pick being British over being Ghanaian, or being Ghanaian over being British. Because ultimately, I am a product of both. Both of those cultures reside inside me. And, you know, it shouldn’t really matter if that’s not normal to society.

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