When it comes to Seretse and Ruth Khama, the phrase “the personal is political” is nowhere close to an exaggeration. At the very least, a black man marrying a white woman would spark controversy in 1948 London; but when the man is set to become the chief of the Bamangwato people in Bechuanaland – what would eventually become Botswana – an interracial marriage turns into a colonial crisis for the British empire.
The British don’t want to get on South Africa’s bad side and risk losing resources; South Africa enforced apartheid the same year the Khamas married, and they knew how dangerous an interracial ruling couple on the other side of their border could be. As a solution, the British bury a report that deems Khama fit to rule and exile him from his own country.
But the film doesn’t just focus on the backlash from the British; the Bamangwato are also angered by what a white, English queen means to their people – an image of the colonizers manifest into reality by a woman who doesn’t understand their language or their customs. It takes months for Seretse’s sister, and then the rest of the people, to begin to accept her.
Nobody does ‘sweeping historical epic’ quite like Amma Asante, providing a nuanced look at historical black lives – not as slaves or servants, but as Austen-esque heroines (Belle) and royalty. Her films are in response to – and in defiance of – a whitewashed canon, telling stories that have been largely forgotten. A United Kingdom is at least three films in one: a whirlwind romance, a political drama, and a heist movie where the protagonists lay a trap to steal back an entire country from a dying empire. But it never feels like it’s overreaching (I, personally, would have watched another hour of the future Botswanans screwing the British empire over). By looking at the fate of a nation through the love and devotion of the film’s central couple, A United Kingdom tethers the viewer and lays out the specifics of the political climate.
The easy chemistry between David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, from laughter in a London dance hall to whispered affirmations in troubled times, help us to understand why the Khamas defy every external pressure to crumble. Her family hates him, his family hates her, and the governments of Britain and Bechuanaland hate their union, but in the end, it’s simple: they love each other. They are two people whose romance sparked over a shared love of jazz and dancing and grew into a steady love – as Asante says, “Seretse probably could have come in any package. It was two souls meeting.” Oyelowo, as usual, is magnetic. You’re drawn to him in every scene, especially when he stands as Seretse to denounce segregation of any kind before his people. Pike embodies a quieter strength that flourishes as the film continues.
The supporting cast also pulls their weight, especially the Botswanans. Tom Felton teams up with Jack Davenport to reprise his classic ‘whiny historical racist’ role, but the British contingent and their wives don’t have to do much but represent a hateable physical incarnation of colonialism. Terry Pheto shines as Seretse’s sister, Naledi, who moves expertly between righteous venom and understated kindness.
The movie is beautiful, too, on the most basic level. Filmed in both London and Botswana, the rainy grays and deep yellows of each location look real and expansive (instead of slapping on a blue filter and calling it a day).
A United Kingdom isn’t a flawless movie, but it’s the kind of movie that makes your heart swell with each new victory (personal or political). It’s a story that had to be told, and it tells it with such a winsome love of the history of Botswana and the Khamas that you can’t help but enjoy it. Watching the sacrificial love of a single couple change the course of world history is astonishing. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I have to read everything I can get my hands on about the Khamas and the road to Botswanan independence.