‘I’m telling a different kind of African story’
By Wilfred Okiche
The true story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams is the greatest love story you never heard. Which is a shame considering it happened right here on the African soil and casts the continent in a positive light.
In 1948, Seretse Khama, the young crown prince of Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana), then a British protectorate, while rounding off his studies in the United Kingdom meets and falls in love with Ruth Williams, a working class British lady who also happened to be (gasp) white.
They decide to marry but their interracial union quickly becomes a matter of diplomatic concern when the British powers that be, acting on concerns raised by apartheid South Africa, which had mining interests in the landlocked country, decide to do everything within their means to frustrate the couple, culminating in a period of exile for the lovebirds.
Who better to bring this epic tale of love, devotion and triumph against the forces of oppression to the big screen than the man who tackled all three constructs while playing the Reverend Martin Luther King in the powerful and critically acclaimed biopic, Selma?
Heavens must have wept when David Oyelowo, the British star of Nigerian descent, was denied an Oscar nomination for his larger than life portrayal of the iconic civil rights activist. But Oyelowo seems to have taken it all in his stride. He is walking the talk and making use of his star power to bring to light a diverse slate of stories featuring African characters.
Oyelowo is back on the grind as star and producer of A United Kingdom, a sweeping love story set in turbulent political times that has gotten mostly positive reviews from around the world. Directed by Amma Asante (Belle), a British filmmaker of Ghanaian descent, A United Kingdom brings to a wider audience, the story of the Khamas, their sacrifice and the role of their struggle in legitimising democracy on the continent.
TS Weekend’s Wilfred Okiche spoke with David Oyelowo via telephone and he had a few things to say. Enjoy it.
What was the first thing that went through your mind when you discovered the story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, and why did you decide that this particular story was worth telling?
I just find that in international cinema, we very rarely get to see Africans who are right in the centre of their own story, most especially political leaders who are also very mindful of their people. What we often see are corrupt political leaders, who are looking to embezzle from their people, but that of course is not always the case. So, with this story, what really struck me was that it was an opportunity to show a very different kind of African story, a very different kind of African leader, and on top of that, a beautiful love story that spans continents, one that is rooted in true love and not in desire for political gain; and so all of these elements made it for me a very potent and timely story.
And this is very important considering that Africa has suffered for so long from under-representation and the single story. Why do you think negative stories tend to stick around longer?
I think traditionally and historically what we have seen in film internationally has been more about the negative side of life in Africa, whether it is political dictators, genocide, poverty or corruption; these are all things that are a part of African life but they are also part of American life and part of European life, and we don’t see those things being celebrated as frequently on both continents as is the case with the African continent. I have been visiting Nigeria for a significant portion of my life and I know that, we as a people, as Nigerians specifically and as Africans generally, that there is so much more to us than the negative stereotypes that we see in both media and movies, movies that are largely told from an outsider perspective by the way. Often these films are told with white protagonists as the centre of the story and the African characters are peripheral and often are negative characters or facing very negative circumstances. The difference with A United Kingdom is that it is a love story and has a black leader at the centre of the story, one who wins the day and gets to stay with the woman he loves even though, he has to give up the throne ultimately. What happens for his people is that he becomes their first president and they go on to have a much better economic, cultural, political rights beyond this challenge that they were faced with.
Seretse Khama becomes the first democratically elected president of Botswana, but isn’t that an ironic development that he spends a lot of energy railing against the British and the South Africans who try to interfere in his business but comes around to choosing a Western construct, democracy as the solution?
I think if we look historically at African nations or even a country like America, we can see that the idea of monarchy especially in the twentieth century was seriously threatened across the globe by the ideology of democracy; so you can argue that in many ways that the struggle that Seretse Khama and Botswana faced at that time simply brought forward the inevitable, which is pretty much what we have seen in Nigeria, Ghana and every other African country, that we are a continent that is largely adherent to democracy. And I would argue that that is progress, where people have a voice that is beyond born leaders who may not be equipped or talented in the way that one would hope to lead.
Seretse Khama did want to lead and you can see that Botswana is one of Africa’s success stories when it comes to the implementation of democracy and holding on to their own resources. Very few African countries have been successful at not handing the West a very large hand in the handling of their natural resources. That is not the case with Botswana and it is largely due to Seretse’s leadership at the foundational stages of their democracy. Ultimately even though there were challenges that the couple and the nation faced, Botswana went on to become a real success story partly because they had a leader who wasn’t so hell bent on being king, he was hell bent on serving his people which he ended up doing as their first president.
And I think that now is a good time as any for Africans to come to this story considering the political situations in some countries at the moment.
I would agree because I think those nations in which the leaders are refusing to step aside resemble what happens in a monarchy and that’s wrong because in a democracy the people’s voices are not being heard. This is a film in which the people’s voices ultimately get heard and it is also a story within which love prevails and anyone who’s been in love, anyone who aspires to be in love, anyone who is an advocate for the power of love can relate. The film shows an instance in history when love won through and we are not talking about lust. Because often I think movies portray lust as love. Love in my opinion is sacrifice and you see that between these two people. You also see the sacrifices they made for the nation and you see the positive outcomes and I think that it is both timely and timeless. We are at a time in African and world history where if more sacrifices were made instead of selfishness, the world would be a better place, and I think Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams embodied and exemplified that.
You are a producer on this film, what was the difficulty in getting this film made?
Movies are very difficult to get made because there is a very ugly marriage between art and commerce. It is very difficult to take an artistic endeavour and make it commercially successful most especially when it is about a story or characters that are largely unknown. So, it was difficult to get the film made but difficult is not a deterrent to me. I am committed to seeing the complexity and beautiful shades of black lives on planet earth displayed in all their glory to the world, and that is still something that is hard to do these days, but I found the right partners to do it, people who believe in the project.
There is always the challenge of financing and distributing movies with black actors not named Denzel internationally. Did it help in this case that your co-star is Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike?
No matter what film you are doing, be it about black or white people; we live in an era where if people don’t have a sense of who it is or what it is they are going to see, it is hard to pull them into theatres. It certainly helped that Rosamund Pike is a fantastic actress who has recently been nominated for an Oscar and is someone who people are aware of and like to see in movies. It would be taking something from her to pretend that that is not the case. You have to find stories that are going to attract great actors that people want to see and thankfully, A United Kingdom is one that can attract an actress of her calibre. So, yes, that did help the film get made.
Hollywood is predominantly white and male. But you have worked with a diverse group of female directors, from Ava DuVernay (Selma) to Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe) and now Amma Asante. Has this been deliberate and is there a particular factor that you have observed that they bring to the filmmaking process?
It is very conscious. Ava (DuVernay) was someone I recommended to the producers to direct Selma, and as a producer on A United Kingdom, I called Amma Asante with the hope that she would consider directing. Mira Nair was interested in me for Queen of Katwe. I am very committed to correcting the balance, which I think is unjust and wrong for female directors, most especially, those of colour being allowed to work in this very influential media, which is film. Films help shape culture, they are seen by millions and millions of people and are incredibly influential. And I think that for half of any given population being denied the right to contribute is wrong. Now you can be part of the problem or part of the solution and I choose to be part of the solution as an actor and producer, so any opportunity I get, I choose to work with female directors because I think it is a culturally important thing to do.
You asked if there is a difference, of course there is. Men and women are different and we’ve had the male perspective predominantly for so long, especially the white male perspective, and as great as that is, we need a different perspective to get a balance of what it is to be human. That is something that is very important to me. Women bring very different perspectives to the work than men do, and I would argue that Amma Asante brings a particular perspective to A United Kingdom such that we were able to focus more on the love story than what I think a man would have done. Men would traditionally want to focus on the political story, but what I always wanted with A United Kingdom was that we would celebrate a great love story that happens to have politics as a part of the narrative.