"A United Kingdom" reclaims the history of the colonized

AP News
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Posted: Feb 10, 2017 9:22 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It took a single image for both David Oyelowo and Amma Asante to fall for the true story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. The cover of Susan Williams' book "Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation" shows a dapper looking couple in the late 1940s walking hand in hand. Ruth is white. Seretse is black. And the mere fact of their decision to marry would rock the social fabric of their respective worlds and result eventually in Seretse's exile from his country.

This little known tale is chronicled in the new film "A United Kingdom," out Friday, starring Oyelowo as Seretse, the Prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and Rosamund Pike as Ruth, a British office worker.

Oyelowo, also a producer, was a driving force for the project for nearly seven years. He became, he said, "obsessed with telling this story."

"Seeing this very self-possessed guy arm and arm with this beautiful lady, clearly very in love and walking down the street? There was something about them and that image that really arrested me," Oyelowo said. "I was shocked and ashamed that as a person of African descent, I had never heard of these people."

Seretse and Ruth met in post WWII London, fell in love, married and were thrown into a world of complications when they decide to relocate back to Seretse's homeland, then a British colony, and are met with resistance not only from their families, but countries as well. Apartheid was just being introduced and for some leaders at the time this interracial romance was not only unimaginable, but something to be stopped and destroyed.

Oyelowo asked his old friend Amma Asante — fresh off the interracial period romance "Belle" — to consider directing. He knew that she could adeptly spotlight a love story within a complex political context.

"It was very important for me that there were people who really caught just how expansive and wonderful of a love story it was because for me it traverses politics," Oyelowo said. "It's a very tough thing to do, especially in a film as political as 'A United Kingdom.' You're not only dealing with politics but you're dealing with antiquated politics. Great Britain post-WWII, South Africa post-WWII. You're dealing with the tribal politics. That stuff can overwhelm the fact that at the end of the day, what a person will connect to is that these two people were in love."

Beyond the connection of the love story, Asante, too, is a Brit of African descent and connected to the story on a personal level.

"The images of Seretse walking through London reminded me of my dad who grew up in a colony (Ghana) and saw it become independent," Asante said. "I knew what independence meant to him, I knew what it meant to my mom."

They shot on location in Botswana to add an authenticity to the story. Oyelowo was surprised to discover that many locals didn't even know the backstory of Seretse and Ruth. For both, it's a matter of reclaiming the narrative from the colonizers and telling stories from the viewpoint of the colonized.

"We're only now arriving at the point where history is told from this point of view," Asante said. "We hear stories of the empire and they usually come from the point of view of the person who existed in the empire and believed in it at that time. History rarely comes from the point of view of those who have been colonized. Usually it comes from the POV of those who did the colonizing."

The parallels to modern politics aren't lost on him, either.

"The idea of Seretse leaving one country to go to another and then being told, 'well you can't come back?' It was going to be timely for any period in our decade and then it became literally timely," Asante said.

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr