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British Misrule

David Oyelowo
David Oyelowo
Fox Searchlight Pictures
 111 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Amma Asante
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike
A United Kingdom

For the second time in a year, a motion picture looks at the subject of interracial marriage from a historical perspective, focusing on one couple whose struggle to have their marriage recognized in their native country eventually had enormous consequences. While Loving looked at a very ordinary couple in the United States who spent years going through the legal system in order to gain the right to marry, A United Kingdom looks at a most extraordinary couple in the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), a landlocked African country surrounded on all sides by South Africa. Of the two, United Kingdom does a much better job of placing the events that occur in their proper historical perspective, but falls a bit short in the human element.


The events portrayed in A United Kingdom are largely accurate historically. In 1947, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), first in line to become ruling chieftain of Bechuanaland, goes to London to study law when he meets and eventually falls in love with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a British office worker. Eventually, they marry, to the dismay of her parents and the disapproval of the British government. As explained to Khama by diplomat Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport, as one of the few fictional characters in the film), the South African government is in the process of instating apartheid and is outraged at the idea of the ruler of a neighboring country marrying a white woman. In addition, the various tribal elders in Bechuanaland are opposed to the marriage.


Nonetheless, Seretse and Ruth travel to Bechuanaland to make their case to the elders, including Khama’s uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kuneni), who has acted as regent until Seretse came of age. He and Ruth convince the tribe to approve the marriage, with the notable exception of Tshekedi, who leaves their village. His refusal to approve the marriage gives the British the excuse they need to exile Seretse in an effort to placate the South Africans, whose mineral wealth Britain desperately needs. The pregnant Ruth stays behind and has her child, while Seretse continues his campaign to regain his throne, appealing to both the general public and the opposition Conservative party, led by Winston Churchill.


Seretse’s exile becomes a key factor in the outcome of the subsequent Parliamentary elections, which return the Conservatives to power. Despite the Conservatives’ earlier assurances, however, the British government’s official position towards Seretse does not change. Eventually, Ruth joins him in exile, but Seretse continues to press his case. His greatest victory would occur, however, after the events portrayed in A United Kingdom occurred, when he would eventually be knighted and elected the first President of Botswana, one of the most democratic countries in Africa.


Needless to say, most Americans (and probably most British) have at best a very vague understanding of African history, so director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert have to provide lots of background information in readily digestible form. They do so quite well, showing that the political give and take, depends as much on the mineral wealth that the British become aware of in Bechuanaland, as to the basic morality of Seretse’s quest, Seretse himself, although perhaps too idealistic at first, learns how to play the game, using the press to help drum up support for him and Ruth with the British public. Hibbert also simplifies the plot somewhat (and avoids possible legal squabbles) by concentrating the arrogant racism of the British government into two fictional characters, Canning and the ambassador to Bechuanaland (Tom Felton), who manage smug duplicity quite well here.


Of course, it’s easier to make an impression on the viewing audience by shocking them with depictions of the actual conditions in both Britain and Africa at the time. Seretse and Ruth face opposition in England from her family members (her father won’t give his blessing to the wedding) and a number of lowlife bigots. In Africa, however, the racism is even more shocking, as the 2,000 or so whites in Bechuanaland imposed a de facto form of apartheid on the 130,000 natives. As the Crown Prince, Seretse is “granted” a number of privileges not available to the other native Africans, including being allowed to stay at the local hotel (not a luxury establishment by any means), albeit still subject to various limitations. A United Kingdom is quite good at showing a more genteel, but equally cruel form of apartheid racism.


David Oyelowo is a powerful presence in this movie, exhibiting strength of leadership in a considerably more subdued role than his Martin Luther King in Selma. In a movie that depicts a complicated political situation, it’s easy for individual characters to get lost, but Oyelowo prevents that from happening. He commands the screen in every scene in which he appears. Rosamund Pike also does well, especially in the scenes in which she interacts with the various women, both white and black, that she encounters in Africa. The real life Ruth was a tough character who had been an ambulance driver during World War II, and Pike, in some of the film’s best scenes, gradually earns the approval and respect of the women in Bechuanaland who were inclined to reject her from the start.


Ironically, for a romance about a man who gave up his kingdom for the woman he loved, so to speak, Oyelowo and Pike don’t generate as much heat together as they should. A United Kingdom is not a multiracial Out of Africa, although Asante is always looking for ways to take advantage of the scenery in the way in which the lead actors are filmed. Part of this relative tepidness is due to the natural reservation Seretse must display as a ruler, but part is also due to the fact that the movie condenses what was a year-long courtship into three or four dates. Asante realizes that she has to have enough time to describe the political conflict in sufficient detail, but that comes at the expense of the romance.


While those looking for an epic romance may be a bit disappointed in A United Kingdom, those interested in a largely forgotten aspect of the history of a continent whose entire history is pretty much a mystery to Westerners will find much to enjoy here. In addition, the movie serves as a stark reminder of the virulent nature of apartheid and the other types of racism that existed in the supposedly enlightened country of Great Britain. A United Kingdom is a solid, never boring, historical drama that finally pays appropriate tribute to a true national hero of a country most Americans probably don’t even know exists.

In this scene, David Oyelowo speaks out to his people against apartheid and defends his marriage.

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A United Kingdom (2016) on IMDb