Here is a story to drive bigots crazy. And it’s even true.
In 1947, Seretse Khama was a young man from the British protectorate of Bechuanaland in southern Africa studying in London when he met Ruth Williams, a young English woman. They fell in love, and that upset all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. He was black, and she was white, and both their families took issue with their romance for the usual stupid irrational reasons. But the governments of both countries also freaked out. Seretse was heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, and for him to marry a white woman was simply insupportable politically. The people of Bechuanaland would never accept a white woman as their queen, or so it was believed. And Britain could not afford to piss off South Africa right next door, which was at that very moment implementing its policy of apartheid in a systematic way. With the Cold War ramping up and the UK eager to gets its hands on the gold and uranium to be mined from resource-rich African lands, a white queen for the black king in Bechuanaland — which was, recall, a protectorate of Britain — would be a smack in the face to its neighbor’s newly legal separation of people based on the color of their skin.
A United Kingdom is the story about what happened when Seretse and Ruth got married anyway. It is from director Amma Asante, who made the marvelous Belle, which is also a very personal story about racism and how loving someone else can change history. And it’s written by Guy Hibbert, who’s shown he knows how to tell stories about the personal meeting the political, with this year’s drone-warfare thriller Eye in the Sky and with 2009’s Five Minutes of Heaven, in which men on opposite sides of Northern Ireland’s Troubles meet and learn about each other.
So, you know: Asante and Hibbert are exactly the right people to steer this movie in the right direction. And they do — oh my, they do. A United Kingdom is sheer perfection every way.
This is a movie that, as a romance, is beautifully passionate. David Oyelowo (Captive, Selma) as Seretse and Rosamund Pike (Return to Sender, Gone Girl) as Ruth share some of the most palpable and insistent chemistry I’ve ever seen in an onscreen couple. In one of those rare examples of movie magic, two actors make you feel their characters’ attraction in a way that has nothing to do with talent or with craft (though these are two very fine actors indeed, and wonderful here). They exist onscreen as living, breathing people who simply must be together, and it is that ineffable air between them that locks you into rooting for them and their relationship, that makes you cry, sometimes with joy and sometimes with despair, as you share their ups and downs. Just as a great love story, this is one of the very best in recent years. (I sobbed. A lot.)
But of course nothing about Seretse and Ruth’s story is “just” a romance. Theirs is a story about how love can be radical, even dangerous. Their relationship, and the tenacity with which they stuck with each other even in the face of truly cruel and mendacious opposition, actually changed the world: they are directly responsible for Bechuanaland declaring its independence from the UK and becoming the Republic of Botswana. Yet while 2016 is the 50th anniversary of Botswana’s formation, this is no mere history lesson but a story still hugely applicable — even necessary — today. The power of bonds like theirs to move the mountain of the status quo is, unfortunately, a power we still need today. A United Kingdom is a smack in the face to Brexit leave voters and Trump supporters, and to all the newly uncovered and emboldened hate against anyone not white and straight… hate that has been amped up for political ends. Driving bigots crazy with stories like Seretse and Ruth’s is absolutely essential right now. Driving bigots crazy with the strength of love over hate is a goal we need to be aiming at now more than ever.
I’ll be honest, though: I’m not very optimistic about the world right now. Even Ruth and Seretse’s battle took decades. But I’ll cling to whatever scraps of hope I can find at the moment. A United Kingdom is, at least, a big scrap.
viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival
A United Kingdom would probably make a good double feature with Loving, which I have’t seen yet, though not for lack of trying. Loving, of course, is about Richard and Mildred Loving, who had the audacity to fall in love in the American South in the 1950s even though their skin wasn’t the same color, and were prosecuted for it in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck down as unconstitutional any laws restricting interracial marriage. But Loving, now playing in the US and Canada, won’t open in the UK till February, and Kingdom, now playing in the UK, won’t open in North America till February. So never mind.