Though few and far between, there have been times when a simple romance changed the course of history. Last year, Jeff Nichol’s Loving captured the true story of an interracial couple in Virginia whose marriage led the Supreme Court to abrogate anti-miscegenation laws across the country. This month, another tale of interracial love that revolutionized society has been gorgeously rendered by Amma Asante in her new film, A United Kingdom. Much like her previous work, Belle (2013), it is a perspicacious period piece, taking a microscope to past racism in a way that reawakens our social consciousness vis-à-vis contemporary issues of racial politics and national identity.
A United Kingdom tells the story of Seretse Khama, the heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland who falls in love with a young British typist, Ruth Williams, at a dance in London. The two are soon married, and neither is surprised to find their families opposed. But little do they realize their romance is about to set off an international crisis, as South Africa, which borders Bechuanaland, has just instituted the policy of apartheid. Fearing the interracial couple will prove an intolerable affront to the South African government – and that Great Britain will consequently lose its mining rights on the country’s soil and risk South Africa’s exit from the Commonwealth – British government officials begin scheming to break up the marriage. This includes leveraging the deep-seated disapproval of Seretse’s uncle – who accuses his nephew of selfishly placing his desires above the pride and stability of his people – to induce the young prince to call it off.
But Seretse has made up his mind that he will only rule with Ruth by his side and declares in a rousing speech before his people that racial inclusion is the only policy that will make their country truly free. He advises them to reject the venom of apartheid that has begun to seep across the border into Bechuanaland. By the end of his plea, the people are convinced. Though initially hostile toward the idea of accepting a white woman as queen – a symbol charged with reminders of colonial subjugation – they proclaim their support for Seretse, upending both the British officials and his uncle’s expectations.
But the battle hardly ends here, as British officials respond by inducing Seretse to leave the country – while a now-pregnant Ruth stays behind – and exiling him for a period of five years. Churchill promises to lift the ban once elected, but reneges on his word, and, in a shockingly cruel about-face, makes Seretse’s banishment for life. Support for Seretse’s cause grows, however, both among the British public where he is aided by a team of lawyers, and within his own tribe, which refuses to convene when the British try to install a provisional government to rule Bechuanaland in his absence.
Eventually, Seretse convinces his uncle that Britain’s main concern in keeping him and Ruth apart has, all along, been to retain its financial monopoly in South Africa and Bechuanaland. For the sake of future prosperity, he argues, it would be in his best interest to not succeed as king and but to run as the country’s first democratic leader – one whose marriage to a white woman would not interfere with his ability to gain the upper hand in negotiations and secure the rights to Botswana’s lucrative mines. Though the film does not cover the chapter of Botswana’s independence, we learn that Seretse was elected president in 1966 and that his son, Ian Khama, is the country’s current leader.
The Khama family worked as advisors on Asante’s film, hence the overall richness and authenticity of the scenes shot in Botswana. At times, they are so well done we feel as if we are watching a film by Ousmane Sembène. Indeed, the main theme of A United Kingdom – how private beliefs and individual actions can have immense ripples on an entire society and its collective system of beliefs – is also prevalent in Sembène’s Moolaadé (2004), where the refusal by a group of women to have their daughters circumcised throws a small village in Burkina Faso into turmoil and redefines power relations within the community. Asante underscores how the individual does matter, and how ultimately, the oppressive structures of a society will fall away once those who belong to it no longer accept their validity. Change begins by questioning customs.
If the Botswana sequences, with their intricate micro-politics, are reminiscent of Sembène, the London sequences bring to mind the recent Netflix series, The Crown, where a simple marriage between the Queen’s sister and a divorced man is also met with fierce resistance from society’s traditional institutions and punished by an imposed separation, designed to induce the couple’s split. Perceived as a threat to the royal family’s stability, it incites a similar maelstrom of political maneuvering. The thwarted marriage Asante portrays, however, is a good deal more disconcerting in that it does not just reveal the extent of conservatism but the extent and ugliness of racism as it dictated the daily lives of people in Britain and Bechuanaland.
But Seretse Khama, as we see, had the same long-term vision of racial inclusion as Martin Luther King – whom David Oyelowo also played with fiery presence in DuVernay’s Selma (2014) – warning his people that rejecting his wife because of her whiteness would not empower them but would in fact only reiterate their acceptance of the divisions that had kept them subjugated for all these decades. Oyelowo’s performance – which struck a perfect balance of sensitivity and tenacity – was one of the highlights of A United Kingdom. Rosamund Pike, in a role radically different from Gone Girl’s cold manipulator, also radiates a combination of fragility and fierce independence that makes her character convincing and admirable. When she arrives in Bechuanaland, she is ill at ease, besieged on all sides by the wariness of the locals, the judgment of British officials, and the hostility of Khama’s family. But in her determination to live truthfully and without compromise, she is Seretse’s perfect match.
The film stays noticeably centered on the couple, not taking much time to deepen secondary characters; but it is, after all, a melodrama, in which the hurricane of events that form around the couple’s relationship becomes a telling microcosm of societal tensions. With its tale of star-crossed, steadfast lovers who transformed the racial landscape and political destiny of a country – and in doing so, inspired the world – A United Kingdom is perhaps the most uplifting social melodrama ever to grace the screen, especially when we consider the genre’s most depressing classics: All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Jungle Fever, Far From Heaven. In Asante’s film, we finally see a couple that conquers, rather than cows to, the prejudice that surrounds them – a story made all the more powerful by the fact that it is true. Though some critics have disparaged the film as “feel-good,” its optimism is also undeniably refreshing.