Four stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for racial epithets and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.26.17
This film’s arrival couldn’t be more timely.
We need it. Desperately. And others like it.
|Having met only recently, but nonetheless mutually smitten, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo)|
and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) spend every free moment together ... despite the
knowledge that responsibilities soon will force him to leave England.
Director Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is a sensitively handled, deeply moving account of the turmoil that erupted in 1948, when Seretse Khama, the new young king of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), had the ill-advised audacity to fall in love with — and marry — Lloyd’s of London office clerk Ruth Williams.
It’s a helluva story. Their union became a headline-making scandal in both his homeland and Britain, despite the latter’s (somewhat) more tolerant attitude toward the color barrier. But broadmindedness had nothing to do with the British government’s reaction, which was shaped solely by nervous anxiety over South Africa’s decision, that same year, to implement apartheid ... which, among many other cruel decrees, banned interracial marriage.
South Africa viewed the existence of just such an interracial couple, directly across its northern border, as a provocative insult. Britain, deeply in debt following the war, desperately needed to maintain the influx of cheap South African gold and uranium, and also worried about the havoc and economic ruin that would result, should South Africa choose to invade its smaller neighbor.
Guy Hibbert’s screenplay — adapted from Susan Williams’ 2006 book, Colour Bar — certainly doesn’t shy from the political and economic issues that prompted such bad behavior by so many individuals in the British government, up to and including Winston Churchill, when he began his second term as prime minister in 1951. At the same time, the new young king faced equal censure from his own people, already chafing under intrusive British “guidance,” and therefore deeply resentful of this white female interloper who knew nothing of their culture, history or deeply rooted national pride.
But Asante never allows such controversy and international fallout to overwhelm the two people at the heart of this saga, and that’s where this film gets its core strength. Stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are both terrific, depicting their respective characters with dignity, grace, intelligence and firm resolve. Rarely have two people been forced to confront such harsh barriers to the peace and happiness they shared, in each other’s company.