In 1948, Seretse Khama, the young crown prince of the British protectorate, Bechuanaland – modern day Botswana – while studying 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 and 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, including forced exile for six years, physical violence and withdrawal of aid. This epic tale played out across continents and on newspaper front pages, as a mix of high wire machinations and clandestine meetings were utilised to reach some kind of settlement.
This true story of love, defiance and sacrifice has for some reasons, not gotten the attention that it deserves, perhaps because culture gatekeepers have decreed that it does not portray the West in good light.
Shinning a beam once again on the true and inspiring story of the Khamas is David Oyelowo, the British actor of Nigerian descent, who has committed his career to telling awesome stories from his home continent.
In an exclusive telephone chat with this reviewer, Oyelowo said: “In international cinema, we very rarely get to see Africans who are right in the centre of their own story. What we often see is political leaders who are corrupt, 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.’’
And Oyelowo has indeed walked the talk. After his big break out in the Oscar- nominated biopic, Selma, where he gave a commanding performance of the civil rights icon, Martin Luther King, Oyelowo has helped bring attention to underserved African stories in films like Queen of Katwe and even the misfire, Nina.
Also starring Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) as Ruth Khama, A United Kingdom continues in this commendable tradition. The film begins in a bar in London where both lovers meet cute and bond over their love for jazz music and hopeless English performers.
Director Amma Asante (Belle) who has her roots back in Ghana and the screenplay by Guy Hibbert are as interested in the minutiae of the lives of the star-crossed lovers as they are at the political big picture and international dimension that their love affair takes. Thus she begins her narrative with the struggles the young couple faces on the streets of London, in the hands of racist jerks and with Ruth’s family’s intense objections. After the deed is done and they move back to Bechuanaland, Seretse’s family also unravels as his regent uncle pointedly fails to reason with him and this disagreement causes a huge tribal rift.
But all these are just the tip of the iceberg considering what happens when the English government decides to capitulate to bullying from a South Africa hell bent on institutionalising Apartheid and threatens fire and brimstone on the young couple. Indeed at some point, Seretse and Ruth Khama are battling two sovereign countries at the same time, not to mention their own personal doubts.
Asante does a fine job balancing the romantic and political forces that drive the story such that no one part suffers. The actors do brilliant work. David Oyelowo is able to burrow into Seretse’s skin and adopt a convincing accent while at the same time delivering the broad speeches and complex emotions that Seretse struggled with. His love for country is resolute and shines through, but his love for his wife and their family is also unwavering. Pike as Ruth is in turns tender and fierce, the ultimate ride or die gal, one who is as comfortable in the icy chill of Britain as she is in the sweltering African heat.
The direction is sweeping with lush cinematography that does not romanticize the African countryside, but lays it bare for what it is. The story is gripping enough but moves at a deliberate pace that makes for quality movie going.
The story of the Khamas and the role of their struggle in legitimising democracy on the continent may have gotten short shrift in the past but A United Kingdom delivers its widest audience yet. Oyelowo states that what he’s always wanted to do with A United Kingdom was to “celebrate a great love story that happens to have politics as a part of the narrative”. Asante captures this perfectly.