Interracial relationships rarely make front-page headlines in 2017, but a high-profile couple did just that when their union became public fodder in the late ‘40s. Opening today in the United States, “A United Kingdom” is the new film from BAFTA award-winning director, Amma Asante, which tells the true story of Botswana’s black royal, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), and his white, English wife, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) whose taboo relationship sparked an international crisis that is chronicled in the book, Color Bar by Susan Williams.
The result is a film about the toxicity of racism in the colonial age and how love can survive it all. “For me, it was key, from the get go that we tell this story and we balanced it with the politics. What I was committed to was always trying to tell the story through the prism of the love story,” Asante explains. This may be the reason why the film feels slightly Disney-esque. The couple seem pretty understanding for people whose love is subjected to the ugliness of colonialism.
“I feel very privileged to be able to project something of the identity of Botswana on-screen,” says Asante. The filmmaker has known Oyelowo for 18 years, after giving him his first job on a show she wrote and produced—Brothers and Sisters. Speaking on the female lead, Oscar nominated actress Rosamund Pike, Asante says: “When we sent her the script, she didn’t come back with an exoticized idea of who Seretse was, the reasons for Ruth going for him, the wild of Botswana and Africa. She just got it.”
Oyelowo took on the producer-actor roles in hopes that he could honor the story. “The perspective of who gets to tell the story dictates what the thing itself is, dictates what the narrative is, dictates what the potency of the film is. Working with certain directors, I’m very determined to see perspectives gain a larger platform in terms of storytelling because that perspective has been marginalized,” says Oyelowo who has worked with female directors of color such as Ava DuVernay (Selma), Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe) and now, Amma Assante who is best known for directing Belle.
On the importance of having Asante assume the director role, Oyelowo explains: “The audience is malnourished and being short-changed if you don’t see what a Black, British, female director has to say about a story like A United Kingdom, that traverses both the United Kingdom and Africa, is a love story, has a female and male character in prominent [roles].”
In 1948, South Africa’s apartheid laws had just taken effect and the “nauseating” interracial marriage was a threat to the South African government whose new policy endeavored to keep the races separate in their sphere of influence. South Africa appealed to Britain for help and what followed is a shameful part of Britain’s history on the continent. “I didn’t realize,” says Pike “that South Africa was threatening to withdraw from the Commonwealth if the British government let the marriage go ahead,” adding on the value of female relationships in the film, “Amma understood that we would need Ruth to have an ally at some point, because Ruth was treated with hostility by the white community because she clearly looked like them but certainly didn’t think like them. I find those alliances so compelling.”
The series of events are heartbreaking and include Ruth’s father disowning her and being apart from her husband for a long period of time. It’s taken years for Oyelowo to bring this passion project to the big-screen, and his commitment to telling A United Kingdom authentically involved working with people who got it. This includes South African actress, Terry Pheto (Naledi) whom Pike laudes, “She has an inner dignity and something quite regal about her.”
A fascinating discovery is that the team filmed in the very house that the Khamas resided in in Serowe, Botswana, which underwent a face-lift based on authentic photos from an old Life magazine piece. Another fact is that Oyelowo drew from his own experiences for the film, saying in a statement: “I know a bit about [interracial relationships], having had some indications that some people might have a problem with the nature of my marriage, but nowhere near to the degree of Ruth and Seretse,” adding: “I am from Nigerian royalty myself, so I know about the pride and the bearing that comes with knowing you’re from a royal family and wanting to do right by that heritage.”
Hopeless romantics will adore the resilience of the couple and their refusal to bow down to pressure. “This is the kind of movie I most love to make: a sweeping, beautiful love story. Seretse and Ruth Khama stood up to enormous power not only so they could finally be together, but so they could show not only the United Kingdom but the world what democracy is about,” says Asante.