'A United Kingdom' Looks To The True Story Of An African King And His British Bride
Interview with director Amma Asante about remembering history in order to not repeat past mistakes
"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" (2013)
The new film “A United Kingdom” (opening Feb. 24 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas and Arclight La Jolla) turns to a true story about an African king and his British bride. Director Amma Asante talks about the appeal of using history as source material.
When Ruth Williams (played by Rosamund Pike) fell in love with Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, who also served as producer) she did not realize he was heir to the throne of Botswana in Africa. And neither one of them could have foreseen how their interracial marriage in the late 1940s would be seen as a threat to South Africa’s newly proposed apartheid.
But the British government (personified by the fictional character of civil servant Alistair Canning played by Jack Davenport), which was interested in maintaining good relations with South Africa, decided to step in and tries to break up the marriage.
“A United Kingdom” turns to a part of history that most Americans are probably unfamiliar with. It uses an intimate love story to shed light on how global politics can play out. The romance hits familiar notes about prejudice and the difficulties an interracial couple can face, however, the insights into how governments exert their power and influence proves fascinating and at times, infuriating.
Filmmaker Asante has turned to history before. In 2013, her film “Belle” looked to the mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral who is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in 18th century England. And her next film, “Where Hands Touch,” uses the historical backdrop of Germany in the early 1940s for another story of an interracial relationship.
Asante is a young filmmaker who as something to say and wants to express her concerns through film. I had wanted to feature Asante in my podcast but sadly the phone connection for our interview was bad. But I still want to share what she had to say about why history provides such good material for her films.
Q. How did you discover this story?
A. I absolutely knew nothing of it until David Oyelowo called me a couple of years ago to pitch me the project. He had read a book, "Colour Bar," that our film later became based on, written by Susan Williams, a brilliant book, in 2010, and consequently had become obsessed with the story of Ruth and Seretse and then a couple of years ago called me to pitch me the project to see if I’d be interested in coming onboard and getting it to a place where we could shoot it. And yeah, get it on the screen.
Q. So actor David Oyelowo was really the driving force behind the project?
A. Yes, he along side a couple of other producers, especially our day-to-day producer Rick McCallum.
Q. What was it about this story that attracted you and made you want to direct it?
A. There were so many things. In particular, I mean there were several, but the love story was incredible and we know that was a great driving force for the story. And it was a story that was very political as well as a love story and politics are a huge influence on me in terms of filmmaking. And the story was going to be taking place on the two continents that were responsible for raising me; you know influencing me the most in my upbringing, Africa and Europe, and that was going to be the same for David. So we had much in common there.
Also, when I looked at Seretse and the images of Seretse walking through the streets of London in his Trilby hat and his trench coat, I was really taken back to images of my father who walked through the streets of London in a very similar way, he didn’t do it at the same point as Seretse, it was some 10 years later or so. But this African man of dignity, this educated man walking through the streets of London and you look at the images and wonder what the story is behind it, and then when you add Ruth into the equation, this very stylish British woman, and you see them as a couple, you wonder what they must have gone through in order to be together. It compels you in many ways to want to know more and to find the best way to put that on screen and bring it to audiences.
Q. And bringing it to the screen, did you have any cooperation from the surviving family members?
A. Because the son of Ruth and Seretse is today the fourth democratically elected president of Botswana, we did have to speak with their son in the sense that we had to apply for work permits and we had to actually apply to be able to work in the country and to have the country a part of our film. That would have been the case had it been any president, but it happened to be their son.
So that was a fascinating place to be in. We had other children; you know the president’s brothers and sister. And also their grandchildren. But they were never part of the storytelling in the sense that they never got to really tell us what to do with the story, but they certainly helped to facilitate us being able to shoot in Botswana and to be consulted in the sense to help make sure alongside the historians that we used that we didn’t make any major mistakes in terms of how cultural elements might unfold, and at one point we were looking for the real house where Ruth and Seretse returned to when they came to Africa and we shot there. And that required us using a lot of our network in Botswana to help us find that house and then eventually get permission to put it back together and then shoot there. So yeah, they were involved.
Q. What is it like shooting a historical drama and actually being able to shoot in some of the locations that were really used by these people?
A. It’s difficult to explain the feeling of standing within the four walls where you know Ruth probably stood once, definitely stood by herself and I think about her being left alone in a country, newly married, finding her way, and standing within the four walls of that house and wondering what she might have thought and whether at any point might have said to herself, “I can’t do this on my own, I’m going back.” It’s interesting to me that both she and Seretse took the road less traveled and really showed great courage and it’s incredible when you stand in a corridor, a bedroom, a bathroom and you think, “Wow this is real!”
We shot in the very hospital where Seretse was born, so when we see Ruth giving birth to their child, it is in the very hospital where Seretse was himself born. And we went back to the actual village where Seretse was actually king of the nation and although that is a very built up area now, so we then had to find another village that would match to it so it looked as the village would have looked in 1947, less built up.
Q. Have you had a chance to screen the film in Botswana and in areas where you filmed?
A. We had a chance to show it in the capitol. It was the first place that we screened the film in terms of a premiere. We always knew because we were so grateful to the king and to the country and the people for allowing us to shoot there, but also because Botswana was about to celebrate its 50th year of independence, it was about to celebrate their anniversary, that we thought this would be a wonderful gift to the country if we showed them the film at that particular time so that was pretty incredible.
Q. What was the reaction?
A. It was also nerve-wracking, I have to say. But the response was great. There were many tears. There was an interesting response from many people. Although they knew the story of Ruth and Seretse once they returned to Africa, having been allowed to return by the British, many people didn’t know exactly what the couple had come up against before that. They knew that there were difficulties and there were troubles, and that there had been difficulties with the empire but they didn’t know exactly what. So the film was really illuminating for them. They gained great insight into their previous president and first lady. There was a sense of discovery for them in many ways as well as being very moved.
Q. You have turned to history before for a film, notably in "Belle." What is the appeal of going to these historical sources for a film?
A. I think the appeal is that oftentimes, when you are telling extraordinary stories that throw up themes and concerns that concern you today that you can explore, it is so much easier to connect all of that with an audience if it comes in the form of something that really happened.
For instance, the fact that Ruth and Seretse are in an interracial marriage is far less of interest to me than what they had to stand up to because of that interracial relationship. But, had I made that up, I think it would have been more difficult, I think the more I make films and the more audiences understand the type of films I like to make and why I like to make them, it becomes easier. I think when you are dealing with the truly extraordinary, to kind of plant them in the context of truth and historical fact, it is a really useful way to connect to your audience because you don’t want them to be watching the movie and kind of losing the thread or losing their connection to the story because they are constantly thinking, “Oh this would never happen.” The very fact that it did means that scenes and ideas can be more easily communicated.
Q. Is there also a little sense of the old, “Those who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it.”
A. Oh my goodness, that is a huge bit. My goodness, you are absolutely right about that. And first and foremost that is the key for me. I make movies about the issues that concern me because they resonate heavily with today. And my next film for instance, that takes place in 1944 Berlin, and I have long, long been concerned with issues that related to the build up of what we saw happen between 1940 and ’45, how societies can be slept-walked into a world of hatred to the extent that they could turn in on themselves and begin to eat their own tail. And I am very, very concerned with what I see happening today that we could sleep walk again into a Nazi-style state.
Whenever something terrible happens in our history we often say, “Never again.” But we are doomed to repeat the horrors of our past if we do not truly acknowledge them and allow ourselves to know about them, but also keep them in mind, they should be there as warnings. Period pieces for me like this, historical pieces like this, do allow us a measure of how far we have come and also, of course, of how far we still have to go. And that is also important to me. I’m grateful for the fact that I can be with my husband today, he’s Danish and I’m English, but I also fear sometimes in terms of the way we are going, because we do still politicize relationships, we do still politicize parts of our world that shouldn’t always fall into a political arena but somehow we do. And sometimes with that negative politics comes a hatred.
Q. Do you find it is getting easier for women and people of color to make movies about their own stories these days?
A. I don’t know that it is getting easier simply because when I look at the figures and they don’t appear to be moving in any significant way. Certainly from an anecdotal point of view I have been able to make three films now in the span of four years, if you include the one that I have just finished filming. Then one has to take into account that it was 10 years between my first and second film, it took a decade, so when I look at it, it doesn’t feel like it is getting any easier yet. It feels like there is a momentum to change things and we are talking about it a little bit more than, say, 16 years ago. Not to say that we weren’t talking about it then but we do seem to be talking about it a little bit more now and there seems to be a momentum across the industry but we need to put actions behind those words and we need to move forward to really open up those opportunities because they aren’t completely there yet.