I’ll be honest — I was quite worried going into the movie theater to see A United Kingdom over spring break after seeing the trailer and learning the background. A Hollywood film based on the true story not only of an interracial marriage in the 1940s, but a marriage between a Botswanan (then-Bechuanaland) King-in-waiting and a white British woman, during the 80-year British protectorate of the southern African country? That could easily and quickly turn out to be a problematic soap opera. But I left the theater two hours later feeling satisfied and honestly informed about a chapter of neo-imperialist history.
The film, based on Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar, stars David Oyelowo (Selma) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl — I still can’t look at her without feeling some fear and distrust) as posh King-to-be of the Bamangwate tribe Seretse Khama and English-clerk-turned-Botswanan-Queen Ruth Williams.
Director Amma Asante (Belle), the story’s ultimate advocate, takes us quickly through the couple's meeting and courtship in 1947 London, where Seretse is studying to become a barrister while preparing to ascend to his throne, and eventual elopement at the protests of their families. The story focuses on the colonial crisis brought about by the marriage, as well as Ruth and Seretse’s struggle to be recognized as legitimate spouses and rulers by both the Bamangwate people and British government.
Asante is not, however, deeply interested in portraying the romanticism of falling and staying in love against all odds, though it is this enduring and inspirational modern love story that allows for a film about the political machinations of imperialist Britain and African nations in moments leading to independence.
The love story is interwoven with the political implications of and players within the union, from Seretse’s own regent uncle’s (Vusi Kenene) rejection to having a daughter of the colonizer as Queen, to the British diplomats (Jack Davenport and Tom Felton) fighting to maintain protectorate control and manage the implications of Bechuanaland royalty in the broader Southern Africa region, particularly South Africa. With Apartheid implemented in 1948, any marriage between a black and a white person was illegal. But it’s not interracial marriage that scares the British government the most — it’s the possibility of losing power, money, and minerals such as diamonds, gold, uranium.
Seretse and Ruth move to Bechuanaland following their marriage to become King and Queen, but face criticism and isolation from colonialists and tribespeople alike. Seretse’s uncle advises him to abdicate, but he is able to win the love and support of the people through a poignant open-air speech and a democratic vote.
The British are not so easily convinced, however — led by Davenport’s Sir Alistair Canning, they exile Seretse from his own country in 1951, leaving the pregnant Ruth behind as a stronghold of power. Ruth forms a real love for the women of Seretse’s family and gives birth to a baby girl on her own in Bechuanaland.
The couple had gained overwhelming support in Britain, where calls for the resignation of Lord Salisbury, the minister responsible for the exile order, were widespread and sustained. The British diplomats, and even Sir Winston Churchill, are portrayed as hell-bent imperialists seeking power.
Likely, the movie somewhat over-simplifies the British official’s characterization as nothing less than evil, almost caricatured. However, the white betrayal the film eloquently characterizes is clearly still a part of international politics — just pick up a copy of the New York Times to see that.
Following much political savvy, many broken promises, and numerous cut-off inter-continental phone calls, *spoiler alert* Seretse and Ruth are eventually able to return to Bechuanaland in 1956, but as private citizens rather than royals. Seretse continued pursuing politics, however, and eventually became the first democratically elected president of independent Botswana in 1966. He and Ruth worked tirelessly to bring their country from third-poorest in the world to having a developed and prosperous diamond-mining economy.
Oyelowo, himself descendent from a royal family line in Nigeria, shines as the morally responsible Seretse and seems “both timely and timeless” (Rolling Stone). He perfectly complements the subtle yet cunning Pike, who portrays Ruth’s truthful and energetic desire to be accepted by her new people and work hard for them.
Asante and the lead actors blend history, humanity, and romance to depict the couple’s formative development as individuals and a union, who would, in turn, foster the continent’s longest continuous multi-party democracy to date. It is a tender, defiant, and poignant story that deserves and needs to be told and seen today.