A United Kingdom
Amma Asante (2017)
It’s a good bet that the vast majority of Americans would be hard put to find Botswana on a map. And even among those who were able to do so, the name Seretse Khama is likely to elicit only blank stares. Unless, perhaps, you are a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s popular “Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency” novels, in which Khama is often mentioned with reverence as the father of modern Botswana. In fact, Khama deserves to be much better known outside his own country. The first democratically elected president of the newly independent Botswana in 1966 was a paragon of honest, wise and forward-looking statesmanship and democratic values while still honoring his nation’s cherished traditions, a founding force that set Botswana on a stable and peaceful course for the past fifty years, an anomaly in the often tumultuous post-colonial Africa.
Amma Asante’s new film A United Kingdom, released on February 10 but finally arrived on one screen in central Arkansas this week, will go a long way toward making Khama’s name better known. But the film does not center on Khama’s administration, but focuses instead on his more tumultuous personal life and its dramatic effect on world politics nearly twenty years earlier.
In the film, Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo of Selma), who is in fact the heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (as Botswana was then known) is in London studying law, preparing to be an enlightened leader at the reins of his nation, then one of the poorest in the world. But taking a night off from his studies, he attends a “missionary dance” where, in a somewhat romanticized “love at first sight” moment, he meets an English office clerk from Lloyds of London named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, far more sympathetic here than in Gone Girl). Despite intense social hostility in opposition to their interracial romance—not the least from Ruth’s father, who disowns her, and from the British government, who virtually order her to break it off, the couple are married in a small ceremony, and prepare to start a new life in Seretse’s kingdom.
But it turns out things are no better in Bechuanaland, for here Seretse’s uncle and regent Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene, last seen in Eye in the Sky) speaks for a large portion of his tribe when he insists that this marriage to a British woman be annulled and Ruth be sent back to England. How can Seretse insult the women of his own tribe by not choosing one of them, and choosing this foreigner instead? Nor do the tribal women, led by Seretse’s aunt and his sister Naledi (Terry Pheto, from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) welcome Ruth with anything but open hostility.
But Seretse tests his people’s will against his uncle, and in a traditional assembly of his tribe, is proclaimed king by a majority of the people. His uncle, unwilling to accept this decision as final, leads a significant minority of citizens away, to set up his own faction in opposition to Seretse. As for Ruth, she is finally accepted by the women of Bechuanaland when Naledi, her resistance worn down by her brother’s love for Ruth and Ruth’s dogged determination to see things through with her stiff upper British lip.
But Seretse’s uncle, and the British government, refuse to let things stand. While there is no violence in the realm, the British interpret the break between Seretse and his uncle as a civil war in need of their interference (Bechuanaland is a British protectorate at the time). But it becomes clear, particularly through scenes in Parliament, that the real issue for the Brits is South Africa. In a series of laws passed between 1948 and 1950, including laws prohibiting intermarriage or cohabitation between races, South Africa was establishing it infamous system of apartheid. The South African government could not tolerate this interracial marriage at the highest level of government in their much weaker neighbor just across it northern border (a little hint for those of you who still were having trouble finding Botswana on the map). The South Africans pressured the British to remove Khama from office or be cut off from South Africa’s mineral riches (including gold and uranium) and, in addition, face the possibility of a South African invasion of Bechuanaland. The Labour government in power, still reeling from debt following the expense of World War II, gives in to the demands of South Africa and, tricking Seretse into traveling to London in 1951, tell him he is now exiled from his own country, and he must live in isolation away from Ruth, who has remained in Bechuanaland, knowing she would not be allowed back into the country if she left.
What happens afterward is a matter of historical record, but I won’t go into any details here for fear of spoiling the movie for you. Suffice it to say that in the end Asante (who directed Belle) has put together a film that is beautifully shot (images of animals in the Kalahari wash over you as you watch this film) and that ultimately celebrates love and the triumph of the human spirit over bigotry, hate, and small-mindedness—a seventy-year old story that was made for our own time. I do think that the screenplay by Guy Hibbert (who wrote Eye in the Sky) fails in some key areas: In the first place, I was never really drawn into Ruth and Seretse’s relationship. There are a few very brief exchanges about jazz and a few scenes of them dancing together, and we are supposed to believe that these few things cemented a great love between them. There is the obligatory sex scene between them, but I’d gladly have sacrificed that for a scene of the two of them discussing their plight, rather than the one line it’s given when Ruth says to Seretse, “We’ve misjudged this, haven’t we?”
For that matter, Seretse’s uncle is never allowed to voice his reservations about Seretse as king. He has a sentence or two about how it’s wrong he married out of the tribe, but surely there are political considerations, and perhaps ambitions, that he is never allowed to voice. Even in a climactic reconciliation scene, Seretse and Tshekedi wander off by themselves and we are left with the women to wonder what they are talking about.
I realize that it is quite unusual these days for people to talk to each other much in films, but in real life people actually do talk to each other, and that’s the chief way we have of knowing what they are like and who they are. The lack of meaningful dialogue in the film makes the characters seem two-dimensional. This is particularly the case with the representatives of the British government in the film, most notably Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) whose consistently condescending manner may make the audience want to hiss, as at a melodrama’s villain, but makes it hard to see him as a fully realized character. As for Pike, while she has some admirable moments standing up to her oppressors, her unruffled, icy demeanor make her seem like something of a cold fish, especially since she is denied the ability to express her feelings through dialogue.
Oyelowo fares a bit better: he has the opportunity to wax eloquent in two public speeches (as he was able to do as Martin Luther King in Selma). But those are set pieces, not dialogue, and this is his public persona, not his private self. His finest hour in the film comes when, exiled from his wife and home, he receives a phone call from Ruth, introducing him to his newborn daughter. Here we finally see the inner man, this time not through words so much as the emotions he displays.
A United Kingdom is a truly fascinating real-life historical drama that ultimately does a better job delineating the political issues behind the narrative than it does the human elements that move it along. It might have been a great film, but it settles for being a good one. The story is worth knowing, Three Tennysons for this one.