Billed as ‘the true story of a love that shook an empire’, the movie A United Kingdom opened the London Film Festival in October, 2016, before going on general cinema release in the UK. To date, box office receipts exceed £2 million. The film opens in the US in February, 2017.
Press reviews were favourable, almost without exception. Reviewers praised the direction of Amma Asante, lead performances by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike and the cinematography of Sam McCurdy. At press conferences and interviews, Assante and Oyelowo asserted the film’s importance in terms both of subject matter and of personal commitment to racial diversity in filmmaking. A United Kingdom is in many ways a big success.
At one level the storyline, based on historical events, is conventional, even banal. A man and a woman, both in their 20s, ‘meet cute’ at a social event in late 1940s London. He is black, she is white. They overcome racial prejudice and their families’ disapproval, marry and become lifelong partners. What gives the story additional, deeper resonance is the man’s background: he is Seretse Khama, heir to an African chiefdom. And, for complicated geopolitical as well as racial reasons, his romancing of and marriage to Ruth Williams ignites controversy, in Africa and in Britain.
The chiefdom was in a British colony, the Bechuanaland Protectorate – now the Republic of Botswana. Since the late nineteenth century, white settlers in neighbouring South Africa had coveted the territory. In 1895, Seretse’s grandfather and two other African leaders travelled to London and successfully petitioned for British imperial protection. In that endeavour, they found support from various political and religious organisations.
Bechuanaland was not at all well known in Britain. Yet, for people interested in imperial affairs, it represented a kind of ‘bulwark’ against the expansion of South Africa – and of South African racial attitudes and practices. Within the protectorate, Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, schemed and politicked to keep Britain ‘onside’ and resist South African attempts at encroachment. Seretse had been only four years old on the death of his father in 1925; he would succeed Tshekedi and assume a leader’s role on coming of age and following necessary affirmation by his people. It was a challenging prospect.
Nevertheless, events seemed destined to follow a reasonably predictable course. Seretse travelled to England in 1945 with the aim of completing his education and, in effect, his training for leadership. He and Ruth met 21 months later, and their relationship took time to develop. It confounded all expectations.
What is evident from the historical record, and what the film makes clear, is how resolute Ruth and Seretse were – in their commitment to each other and in their shared resistance to familial, social and political pressures. They were certainly at the centre of a storm. In filmic terms it is a remarkably still centre, probably true to life, but lacking intensity. With some exceptions, most of the film’s drama (and humour), comes from the interaction of Ruth and Seretse with others. Pike’s declaration (as Ruth) ‘I am not a typist’ to a civil service inquisitor provides a neat, glancing, almost nuanced indication of her character’s concern with status. As Seretse, meanwhile, Oyelowo is most emphatic – and emotional – in his addresses to the tribal kgotia, or council.
The film focuses to a fairly limited extent on secondary characters, most successfully perhaps Seretse’s sister Naledi, who articulates her family’s ambivalence, and initial coolness, towards Ruth. It is a pity that the realtionship between Seretse and Tshekedi goes unexplored. There was a 16 year age gap, but the difference in terms of generation and temperament was much greater. Seretse ultimately won the support and acclaim of his people only in part through his own efforts; tribal dissatisfaction with Tshekedi was also an important factor. Feelings ran high in the protectorate.
The film’s cinematography and editing emphasise the contrast between grey, foggy London and sunny Serowe, in Bechuanaland. Political machinations are not unknown in Serowe (neither is race prejudice), but Westminster is the real centre of political decision-making, and of deceit. The intrigue is not easy to follow. A general election in South Africa has brought to power a government committed to policies in support of apartheid. Seretse’s marriage to Ruth is an affront to those policies. Pretoria makes secret representations to the Labour government in Britain, which – in March, 1950 – banishes Seretse from the protectorate for a five-year period. And the injustice has only begun. The Conservative opposition criticises the decision and then, after assuming power in late 1951, makes the banishment permanent.
Those decisions stimulated a storm of protest in Britain. The film correctly emphasises Labour MP Tony Benn’s active support for Seretse. However, the controversy had a broader invigorating impact on the Left, within and also beyond the Labour Party. It fed public concern about racial discrimination in Britain’s colonies and about Britain’s relations with South Africa. Seretse was banished for geopolitical reasons: at the beginning of the 1950s imperial Britain needed a close relationship with South Africa for reasons of mineral wealth and Cold War defence and security. By the middle of the decade, as the impact of apartheid deepened and spread, Britain began to distance itself from South Africa; the government ended Seretse’s exile in 1956. And, in 1966, he became the first president of independent Botswana.
In terms of direction, lead performances, photography and set design, A United Kingdom works well. Susan Williams’s book Colour Bar, originally published in 2006 and on which the film is based, tells the complicated story better. Penguin has published a new paperback edition to coincide with the film’s release.
Stephen Chan, ’50 Years of Botswana’, History Today 66, 9 (2016)
Neil Parsons, Willie Henderson and Thomas Tlou, Seretse Khama, 1921-1980 (1995)
Susan Williams, Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and his Nation (2016)
(Images: WikiMedia Commons)
John Stuart is Associate Professor of History at Kingston University