Amma Asante’s brilliant new movie, “A United Kingdom” is part tender love story, part virulent attack on (one of the many) ugly side(s) of the British Empire. She pulls off the delicate balancing act of engaging us in the very human, intimate story of a love, powerful enough to take on the anger of the empire (and the contempt of its citizens), while at the same time, telling the bigger story about leadership, nation building and freedom. To Asante, these two parallel stories embody the tensions of love/togetherness/nobility on the one hand, versus empire/division/dishonesty on the other.
The story is set in the period just after the war, in a perennially grey, foggy, cold London…where Ruth Williams (a compellingly strong Rosalind Pike) meets and falls in love with Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, from “Selma”). The problem is, she’s White and he’s Black. And to the White society in which they lived at the time, this interracial cohabiting is an abomination. Because of her choice of a mate, Ruth slips from dutiful daughter and trusted worker to someone contemptible; someone to be expunged- from family (her father is the first person to reject her) and from society.
The more complex problem is that Seretsy is no ‘mere’ Black man: he is Prince Seretse Khama, the King in waiting to the British Protectorate, then called Bechuanaland (now Botswana). There, a parallel rejection occurs: Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene), his de facto father, and the present ruler, will not tolerate a White daughter in law. As he puts it, just as there would be no tolerance for a British Royal to marry a Black person, so too there can be no tolerance for the Royal family of Botswana to accept a White outsider as the country’s queen.
Call it political pragmatism, call it tradition, bigotry begets bigotry.
What neither the uncle nor the British establishment counted on was the rock steadiness of Ruth and Seretse’s love, and of their mutually reinforcing determination to defy injustice, no matter the personal sacrifice.
Asante’s last movie, “Belle”, also dealt with the issue of bi-racial love, and sought to link its demands for equality with the move toward the abolition of slavery. As “A United Kingdom” suggests, one hundred plus years after its abolition, White disgust at Blackness (in those early post war years) remained unchanged.
In the movie, the Empire, whether led by an amoral Clement Attlee or a bigoted Winston Churchill – both of whom would have no truck with this Black King and his White wife – is presented as generally mendacious, deceitful and lying. And its sneering, supercilious embodiment is Sir Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport better known as Norrington from”The Pirates of the Caribbean”). Canning is a minor historical footnote that, at Her Majesty’s pleasure, sought to divide Khama from his country and wife through any means at hand; all so as not to offend apartheid South Africa.
In the end, Asante suggests that the glue of love and unity (plus a hearty mixture of luck and Seretse’s cunning counter-moves) was a more powerful force than the cynicism of the British strategy of divide and conquer.
Love as guerilla warfare.
(Though Botswana was fortunate: the Tswana represents over 80% of the population…so the possibility of a united kingdom was perhaps easier than most of British Africa whose tribes were arbitrarily reshuffled by the ignorant dividing pen of colonial cartography)
Guy Hibbert, the writer, who wrote the superb “Eye in the Sky”, allows us to be both wooed by the romance and outraged by the history. In “A United Kingdom” he manages to personalize Westminster politicking -whose smug haughtiness was the spark that fired up the Khama’s even as it lit the bonfires of independence around the Empire
And Streatham born Amma Asante offers us a view of Bechuanaland – honest; matter of fact – without the exoticism that so many other directors, either gob-smacked by the beauty of Africa or ostentatiously saddened by its poverty, tend to succumb to (Sydney Pollack in “Out of Africa”).
Though, in those few scene-setting flashes we saw of the magnificent Okavango delta, I wish she’d have been a little bit less restrained and offered us more. No matter, what was on offer in “A United Kingdom” was a full bounty of magnificent movie making
A United Kingdom. Dir: Amma Asante. With: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton. Writer: David Hibbert. Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy