Portrayal of history addresses problems still relevant today
by Alan Charlton
Photo Caption: Rosamund Pike, Madison Manowe and David Oyelowo star in a scene from the movie A United Kingdom. ( CNS photo / Fox )
A UNITED KINGDOM
In cinemas throughout the Lower Mainland
Britain in the years immediately after the Second World War may have been progressive in many ways, particularly in the realm of social reform, but in other respects it was decidedly backward looking, most particularly in regard to racism.
Therefore, when Seretse Khzama, a black African, met Ruth Williams, a white woman, and the two fell in love and decided to get married in 1947 London, they quickly discovered they were to be met with almost universal disapproval – and not only from white people.
The situation was complicated by the fact that Seretse Khzama happened to be a tribal prince in Bechuanaland, a British protectorate and modern-day Botswana.
Khzama’s uncle, the tribe’s regent, disapproved of Ruth Williams as his nephew’s choice of bride and ordered him to divorce her, just as Ruth’s father disowned her. Faced with this barrage of negativity, the couple avowed their love for each other and faced down the opposition.
This isn’t some fictional Cinderella story but rather a matter of history and the basis for a fascinating film,
A UNITED KINGDOM.
Generally faithful to the facts, the film shows how Ruth and Seretse gradually won over the hearts of his people. It shows how the British government, with all of the arrogance of British colonialism, tried to wrest the kingdom from Seretse, largely in an attempt to maintain the goodwill of South Africa, which was embarking on its hideous policy of apartheid but remained economically important to Britain.
The film also shows the perfidy of politicians who were willing to subvert the truth in order to serve their own ends – even to the extent of Winston Churchill reversing his opposition stance of harshly criticizing the Attlee government’s five-year exile of Seretse Bechuanaland and then exiling him for life.
Clearly this is a good choice of subject matter for a film, but under the control of director Amma Asante it is more than that. She gains excellent performances from her actors, particularly the two leads.
David Oyelomo, who did such great work in his portrayal of Martin Luther King, lends to his role a compelling warmth and dignity, while Rosamund Pike as Ruth is at once charming as a conventional young English woman, but with a quiet grit that reveals how she withstood the vicissitudes of her life.
Asante has also managed to convey the locales in a way that underscores the drama. A foggy, grey and depressing 1940s England contrasts with the warm ochre of Africa, which although poor and barren looking is filled with people who are able to meet crisis with dignity and integrity.
A UNITED KINGDOM not only provides a lesson in history coupled with a real-life love story, but it also reminds audiences of the grim realities that were so much a part of the past. Racism, political expediency, and outright lying were all part of the mix that Ruth and Seretse faced.
Despite the anger experienced while watching the film, the question arises: would things be handled any differently today? We like to believe society has advanced in its attitude to people of different races and its treatment of Third World countries, yet the film challenges viewers to consider whether things have really changed.
As the audience watches racial attacks on Ruth and Seretse, political hypocrisy, and personal betrayal against the couple, it becomes apparent that we are being asked to look at our own society and attitudes.
Above all, the film asserts the qualities of human beings who display courage, determination, and above all love as they gradually triumph over the evils they face.
A UNITED KINGDOM is a film that needs to be viewed by all. Despite making us uncomfortable and uncertain whether society is much different than it was, it shows the triumph of the human spirit and asserts the value of long-admired virtues in dealing with the challenges of life.