Long before Where Hands Touch premiered at Toronto International Film Festival where it received two standing ovations, the film had been plagued by accusations that its writer and director, BAFTA winner Amma Asante had “romanticised” Nazis. The film follows Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) as her mother Kerstin (Abbie Cornish) fights to save her daughter from the Nazi’s forced sterilisation plan by moving her family to Berlin. Once in Berlin, Leyna meets and subsequently falls in love with the son of Nazi officer and a member of the Hitler Youth, Lutz (George McKay). The film is powerful (I know cos I’ve seen it) and according to The Hollywood Reporter any charges the film romanticises Nazis “couldn’t be further from the reality of this thoughtful film.”
I can’t stop thinking about how this important film many haven’t even seen could have been shifted off course by conjecture. You see, reviews written by people who’ve actually watched Where Hands Touch are one thing. I am, however, concerned more by the slow burn campaign of anger towards the film, the director and its lead based solely on the first look image and later the trailer. “Amma Asante really had the audacity to make a film about a nazi and a black girl falling in love…” reads one tweet. “This should have been troubling for Asante to write and turn into a film…” reads another. Search the writer/director’s name and it’s not hard to find disparaging words written about not only her work on this film but also her personal life.
The idea of this strand of the backlash narrative being that Asante’s own interracial relationship informs her filmmaking rather than a desire to explore oft untold stories of blackness in history. This form of backlash works in duality to a) discredit Asante by asserting that her success is owed, not to her skill as a writer and a director, but instead credited solely to her mythical service to white media’s agenda to see blacks disenfranchised and b) fully ignore Where Hands Touch is based on historical fact. Between 1918 and 1930 French and Belgium forces occupied the German Rhineland. African soldiers from French colonies married German women and fathered mixed race black children. Leyna is a representation of these children left behind in a country hostile to both them and their mothers. Ah! But that would be too easy. The idea that it wasn’t conjured out of thin air by some deranged mind beholden to white supremacy makes it hard to haphazardly apply misogynoir to Amma Asante’s crafting of the film. The detractors unwittingly project antiquated racist stereotypes onto Asante. They deny her the fullness of her intellect and claim she is “obsessed” with miscegenation so much so that those are the only films she can make.
“Dani, not everything is about misogynoir. We wouldn’t have supported a Nazi love story made by anyone.” I can imagine some of you saying. And that’s my point, Where Hands Touch is not a Nazi love story. Love is a part of the narrative but to reduce the sum of this film to that alone does a disservice to the work it does to shine a light on this group of people who I, personally, didn’t know existed. With the help of rigorous research outlined on her website, Asante attempts to uncover the lived experiences of these Afro-German people and tell it through the eyes of a young woman and her mother. If, as some who admit they haven’t seen the film suggest, the aim is to “posit romantic love as a cure to Nazism” then it fails horribly because love doesn’t conquer all in Where Hands Touch. Lutz doesn’t save Leyna from the labour camp she’s eventually sent to. The hand that pulls her out of the horror belongs to an African-American soldier. And you lot would know this if you’d have watched the film.
The rise of neo-fascism in America and Europe demands all representations of Nazis on screen paint them as the scourge of the earth they are. Anything less and we risk falling into dangerous tropes like “the good Nazi.” Amma Asante herself says in an interview with Black Girl Nerds “before you can romanticize a Nazi, you have to conceive of romanticizing one, and I never conceived of it…” She goes on to elaborate. “The relationship exists to express two things, the Holocaust, and to express the fact that Leyna defies Hitler. He doesn’t want her to have relationships with people outside of her race.” Lutz is not the protagonist- Leyna is… if anything, he’s a mere vessel to communicate her story. These black mixed race children were surrounded by whiteness and those white people were Nazis or the children of Nazis. Are you asking a whole Amma Asante to deny this truth because this historical fact makes you uncomfortable? Is that her problem or is your desire she choose easier subject matter, less challenging fare your personal hill you need to tend to in private?
Listen, I’m not saying black women don’t get things wrong. I’m not saying that black women are beyond reproach. But be clear what I am saying is that in this particular situation, those leading the charge against this Where Hands Touch committed themselves to denigrating the work of a filmmaker whose work they hadn’t seen because they convinced themselves this director went out of her way to tell a story they deem unworthy of attention. The misogynoir, the anti-black woman rhetoric, surrounding the film takes shape in their continued denouncement despite Asante’s response to the backlash. “Amandla's role in this film brings attention to an as yet untold story in the arena of drama cinema, to the existence of the other 'others' who suffered during the holocaust.” The director explains. The assurances did little to extend to her work of 12 years the benefit of the doubt or trust that she knew how to tell a story that was respectful of the horrors Jewish people experienced at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust while also being forthright about how these mixed race black German children and teenagers might have had to navigate this world.
“We want more black women to direct films as long as these black women are well behaved, make us comfortable and tell the stories we want to see.” Is what I hear when I read some criticism of Amma Asante’s Where Hands Touch. I feel the weight of an expectation to ‘behave’ bearing down on me. If I stray from the path of the ‘Good Black Woman TV Exec’ who can only make shows that are sanitised and make you lot comfortable, you will come for me. If I ‘misbehave’ you will question who I’ve dated and accuse me of a fetish I was unaware I had. It’s no secret I’m a fan of hers but I’m not Amma Asante. I won’t make the same decisions she makes but I protect her freedom to do so in the hopes one day someone will do the same for me should I too be disobedient and refuse to cower in the face of those placated only by biddable black women.