Rosamund Pike: They were sitting side by side, the two of them close up to each other. It was like someone had flicked on a switch […] I felt tears streaming down my face. Something about them moved me so much […] It bore out everything I’d hoped for […] I find their story incredibly inspiring and moving, and that’s what I ask for in movies I go and see. I want to see movies like that. I want to see movies that make love heroic and the act of love courageous.
The hit Netflix’s series The Crown – in many ways admirable stuff – almost entirely omits non-whites from Britain’s story; Kenyans feature more as backdrop figures than as agents themselves. British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga has recently presented Black and British: A Forgotten History on the BBC. Oxford-born black British actor David Oyelowo pronounced: ‘People of colour have been expunged from Britain’s history’. Oyelowo has acted on this imperative by starring in A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante, best known for 2013’s acclaimed 18th-century-set Belle (2013).
This new film dramatizes the controversy surrounding heir to the throne in Bechuanaland getting married in 1948 to a white British woman. Oyelowo first came across the story via Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar (2006) in 2010 and began developing the idea for a film with producers Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason, who acquired the rights. Oyelowo has also spoken of the film being an attempt to tackle history that educational curricula choose to ignore. He also commented that the recent rise in racist rhetoric has validated the reason for making the film.
The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa.
The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa. As Asante argued: ‘Why wouldn’t we show the beautiful sunsets? I remember waking up in my mother’s African village to beautiful sunrises and beautiful sunsets.’ The film also pays close attention to power, politics and persuasion, as in what Stables refers to as Seretse’s ‘game-changing speech’. Where Peter Morgan captured some of the paranoid psychosis of Idi Amin’s Uganda in The Last King of Scotland (2006), screenwriter Hibert fashions a story containing many political tensions, but also an inexorably buoyant narrative. Such an avowed love letter to social liberalism feels embattled in ever less tolerant and pluralistic 2016. I would agree with Kate Stables in Sight and Sound that it is a ‘laudable retelling of a less than glorious chapter in British history.’ Sadly, far from the last ignominious such chapter…
The film ends with independence on the cards, using captions to convey the rest of Seretse and Ruth’s story. It seems it wasn’t, as some might expect, particularly sanitised. It leaves you wanting to find out more about the real situation in Botswana from the 1960s until today, which is a good thing.
In real life, Seretse Khama took a brave gamble and renounced his chieftaincy, and stood for election, winning in 1965: leading to independence for the renamed Botswana in 1966. On that Independence Day, Queen Elizabeth II conferred a knighthood on him. He kept to Westminster style political arrangements, avoiding a one-party state. His economic policy was more free-market than socialist; as Keatley states, ‘He insisted on a strict balance of payments and a sound currency’. This economically ‘Victorian’ figure was, however, defiantly anti-Apartheid and towards the end of his reign he established free universal education in his country. Keatley praised Khama’s ‘legacy of tolerance and stability that have made Botswana one of the happiest countries in Africa’. One of the better researched articles on the film from Jessamy Calkin confirms the positive picture of Botswanan culture and society: ‘Historically, it was less heavily colonised than much of the continent […] Good management and wealth brought by the discovery of diamonds have ensured that its citizens are entitled to free healthcare and education, and each can claim a piece of land, 40m by 40m, once they are 21, for which they don’t have to pay. (In two days here, I have met many people who have done so.)’ Calkin also comments that Seretse Khama’s personality has impacted on the culture’s genteel and courteous nature today, where it is ruled by his son Ian Khama.
Director Asante, 47, Streatham born with Ghanaian roots, has had a notable life: her parents ran a shop that sold African cosmetics and then groceries; she experienced racism in Streatham while growing up, was in Grange Hill (“it taught me that I could not act”), met Nancy Reagan as part of the “Just Say No” campaign and is a massive Prince fan who had a private meeting with him. In 1998, she wrote and directed the Liverpool-set Brothers and Sisters which featured the then 22-year-old David Oyelowo. Asante has spoken eloquently on ethnic minority and female under-representation in British cinema and has claimed that the Brexit vote wouldn’t have happened without class inequality.
Its 66-year-old screenwriter Guy Hibert, a veteran of 1990s BBC film-drama strands Screen Two and Screenplay, comes up with a concise, focused film celebratory of liberalism: cross-racial romance, democratic values. Seretse is conveyed as similarly eloquent in his use of rhetoric to Martin Luther King, as depicted in Selma (2014).
Acting-wise, Jack Davenport is particularly assured as Alastair Canning, a sadistically bland British government functionary who offers sherry while giving Seretse the absurd offer of a posting to Jamaica. Tom Felton is a little more cartoonish – reflecting some of the occasional unsubtlety picked up on by Stables. Jack Lowden, with Nikolai Rostov, Oswald Alving and Thomas Wyatt already under his belt at 26, gets to play a heroic, twenty-something Tony Benn. Rosamund Pike continues her specialism in enacting post-WW2 characters; following An Education (2009) and Made in Dagenham (2010) with a sensitive and humane portrayal of middle-class clerk Ruth Williams.
Local and international power politics are well conveyed, as highlighted by Davis: ‘Since South African uranium was a key ingredient of the West’s Cold War nuclear arsenal, Britain was reluctant to antagonise the Pretoria regime.’ While Khama’s own people are won over quite quickly by the couple, the British led by Attlee are unwilling to jeopardise key economic assets in the geopolitical context of the Cold War. In the 1951 General Election campaign, Churchill – unseen, sadly and not played by John Lithgow – promises that Seretse will be allowed to return to Bechuanaland. Once in the power, the old ‘statesman’ – or is that grandiose rogue? – reneges on his promise and extends Khama’s exile. Kermode has argued it successfully blends the personal and political and is necessary in being crowd-pleasing, working well with a large audience. It seems the ideal film to appeal to this critic’s liberal-left Christian sensibility.
In a Live Q&A in November 2016 following a film about his diaries, Alan Bennett bemoaned Britain being a less ‘tolerant’ country than it was in the 1950s. A Britain that is now lacking in Ruth Williams’ – hailed by Stables for ‘her stoicism and community efforts’ – and drowning in boorish Farages and Johnsons. A United Kingdom sketchily depicts some of the underlying racism of the late 1940s, but has a powerful sense of its romantic leads both being outsiders in each other’s cultures. It also balances the Attlee government’s compromises with ‘Anthony Benn’ figuting as a morally crusading advocate for Seretse and Ruth. As Calkin commented, the couple named one of their sons after Benn. To me, it feels like empathy within British society and support for the Welfare State has eroded and we are less tolerant. Our younger British generations are generally past racism, but the media keeps fermenting it, especially successfully among older citizens, who vote more and are more susceptible to such a message.
In the context of 2016, A United Kingdom forms a vital corrective to our severely disunited kingdom, by showing and understanding the follies of the past and presenting an inspiring story of love as a progressive, necessary force.
 Griffin, S. (2016) ‘The power of love’, Yorkshire Post, 25th November, np
 Stables, K. (2016) ‘Reviews: A United Kingdom’, Sight and Sound, December, p.89
 Clark, A. (2016) ‘Amma Asante: ‘I’m here to disrupt expectations’ – As her movie A United Kingdom opens the London film festival, the British director talks about her new membership of the US Academy – and why the whole industry needs to change’, The Observer, 2nd October, p.6
 Loughrey, C. (2016) ‘Finding love in a time of division’, The Independent on Sunday, 27th November, p.89
 Anon (2016) ‘Film industry is ‘doubly testing’ of women, says Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike’, The Herald, np
 Clark, A. (2016) ibid., p.6
 Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89
 Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89
 Keatley, P. (1980) ‘A legacy of tolerance’, The Guardian, 14th July, p.6
 Keatley, P. (1980) ibid., p.6
 Calkin, J. (2016) ‘The true story of the first president of Botswana and the English woman he fell in love with’, The Daily Telegraph, 4th November, np
 Jacobs, E. (2016) ‘A change of narrative’, Financial Times Weekend Supplement, 12th November, p.18
 Jacobs, E. (2016) ibid., p.18
 Davis, C. (2016) ‘THE SECRETARY AND THE PRINCE – Their relationship scandalised 1950s Britain but Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama had a happy marriage, as a new film reveals’, The Express, 17th November, p.13
 Kermode, M. (2016) ‘A United Kingdom review’, BBC Radio 5, 25th November
 Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89
 Calkin, J. (2016) ibid., np