Two films about non-white women bucking established patriarchy formed the centerpiece of Ebertfest’s second day Thursday, with filmmakers Gregory Nava and Amma Asante on hand to talk about “Selena” and “Belle,” respectively.
“Selena” proved to be the breakout role for Jennifer Lopez, who in the mid-1990s was known—if at all—for being a part of the Fly Girls dance troupe on the sketch comedy show “In Living Color.”
Nava, whose “El Norte” screened at the festival several years back, recalled seeing some 10,000 actresses in Los Angeles alone seeking to play the coveted role of Selena Quintanilla-Perez, the Tejana music sensation whose life was tragically cut short March 31, 1995, when an argument with the manager of her finances resulted in Selena being shot.
The Quintanilla family, still reeling from the tragedy of the singer’s murder, had final casting approval. Nava said he dined with the “most famous” Hispanic actresses of the time, and told them they would all have to audition for the role.
“Jennifer is just the most fantastic person. She goes, ‘I don’t mind,’” Nava said of meeting a then-unknown Lopez. “A few of [the candidates] said no, but Jennifer Lopez said, ‘I will put myself up against anybody.’
“Selena and Jennifer Lopez are the two greatest female icons in our community, and they came together in our film,” he said.
Released in 1997, “Selena” starred Lopez as the up-and-coming Mexican-American singer whose father Abraham (Edward James Olmos) manages her career with a steel hand—wary of both the white establishment and a talented-but-roughshod guitarist named Chris Perez (John Seda), who has his eyes on his daughter.
Nava said Perez, who became Selena’s husband, has to this day not gotten over his wife’s death. However, he was instrumental in helping Nava craft the script and filling it out with anecdotes unknown to the outside world.
“He told me this whole truth about how they eloped. When you see that scene, I didn’t write it, that is exactly” Perez recalling the conversation, Nava said. “He said, ‘I don’t know if Abraham will want you to know what really happened.’”
Indeed, Selena’s father had always been under the presumption it was Perez’s idea to elope, but the film shows Selena bringing the idea to Perez’s avatar.
“He reads in the script it was Selena’s idea to elope [and] he went out of his mind,” Nava said. “He said, ‘I don’t want every little girl thinking they can just run off.’”
Taking a page from Selena’s own playbook, Nava said he gave Abraham a day to calm down. Returning a second time, he told her father it was Selena’s assertiveness that informed her character.
Abraham had by then had a change of heart, telling the writer-director: “If I have to look bad in order for the world to know how good my daughter was, so be it.”
Though now known for her music as well as her acting, Nava said at that point in her career, Lopez had no intentions of being a professional singer. Indeed she lip-synced to Selena’s songs during the production, but her close attention to how Selena moved onstage was what elevated her performance.
“[The other auditioning actresses] danced like they dance; Jennifer did it like an actress,” Nava said. “She imitated Selena at all the various periods in her career.”
Nava believes “Selena” the film was a bit of a watershed moment for Hispanic actors, with a Hispanic actress portraying a Hispanic icon. While researching the film, Nava related seeing several girls wearing Selena T-shirts.
“I said, ‘why do you love Selena?’ They said ‘because she looks like us,’” he said. “I [wanted] to make a movie for these girls because they need someone who looks like them on the screen and they never get to see that.”
Chaz Ebert, Roger Ebert’s widow, said that Nava was in fact in the hospital on the day of her husband’s passing.
“[Nava] cancelled all of his appointments for the next week so he could stay in Chicago and help me plan Roger’s memorial,” Chaz related. “So I knew for our 20th anniversary one of the people Roger would want here is Gregory Nava.”
“He was a truly great man. He was my friend. And not a day goes by that I don’t miss him,” Nava said of Ebert.
Nava then presented Chaz with a “Selena” movie poster signed by both himself and Lopez.
“She’s so proud to have the film here today, and she’s with us in spirit,” Nava said of Lopez, who did not attend the screening.
The evening’s film was “Belle” from Amma Asante, a British-born filmmaker whose parents immigrated to the United Kingdom from Ghana. Asante, who directed last year’s “A United Kingdom” with David Oyelowo, said she decided to make the earlier film due to her desire to “put a woman of color front and center.”
Based on a true story set in 18th century England, “Belle” stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a wealthy white man and a slave. When Belle’s mother dies, her father brings her to his family estate to be raised by his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), a rich judge who may have the opportunity to rule on the continued legality—or lack thereof—of the slave trade throughout the British Empire.
“The origins of slavery started in the U.K., for better or worse,” Asante said.
Although Belle is in fact heiress to the family fortune, due to her race she is shunned from family meals with outsiders, and her chances of finding an understanding future husband are grim.
“This is one of those stories I like to call ‘hidden figure stories’ that are based on truth but people have no idea they exist,” Asante said following the screening. “I think the reality is history is always written about those who have the power at the time, and they were usually white and usually male,” she said.
Asante said her producing partner on the film, Damian Jones, is married to an African-American. The couple once traveled to Lord Mansfield’s hometown in Scotland where they saw a painting he commissioned of Belle and her white cousin, Elizabeth, portrayed in the film by Sarah Gadon. That visit became the genesis for “Belle.”
“When I looked at the painting, I saw two English roses. And just like roses come in many types, I wanted to present to the audience a very British period drama but also an English rose that you may not have seen before,” Asante said. “She was a woman and she was British, but I wanted Elizabeth there to show exactly what [Belle] did not have access to.”
Asante also felt the film could speak to young women and teenagers facing pressures to conform to certain societal standards of beauty.
“The big question is how you bring up that issue of nonacceptance…in a very gentle British period drama,” she said. “I wanted a love story where the love was between [Belle] and herself. And how self-love emerges.”
She also said the the father-daughter dynamic between Belle and her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, was an homage to Asante’s own father, who passed away during the film’s production.
Asked if the “tide is changing” to seeing more women of color represented in period dramas, Asante said she feels partly responsible for such a shift, but more work needs to be done.
“Get your work seen,” she responded to a question from an audience member about what women can do to make their voices heard. Asante said it is now as simple as using an iPhone to make a film and post it online. She added that she herself never even went to film school.
“If Roger were here, this is [a film] we would be watching with our hands together,” Chaz Ebert said of her own mixed-race marriage to the late film critic, adding she saw “Belle” for the first time not long after her husband’s passing. “I felt like he was sitting there watching the film with me.
“I never told anybody that—except I’m telling everybody tonight.”