If you hadn’t heard of A United Kingdom (the movie), you might think the title was a joke in the wake of the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union. And while the movie has nothing to do with Brexit, its timing is certainly auspicious.
While the UK has seen a rise in openly racist and racially charged anti-immigrant sentiment, A United Kingdom is about the true-life marriage of a Botswanan King, Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, Selma, Jack Reacher) to Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl, An Education). Seretse is black and Ruth is white and the period is the late 1940s and early 1950s – popularly regarded as a shitty time to be a woman or a person of color. The film is an adaptation of the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams and follows the backlash the couple faced from both their homes and abroad.
It opens with Seretse and Ruth meeting and falling in love in London in the late 1940s. Seretse is the future king of the Bamangwato people in the British protectorate of Bechuanaland before it became the Republic of Botswana in 1966. He had been sent to England to study while his uncle acts as regent back home. After meeting Ruth, the two marry despite the objections of both families. Back in Bechuanaland, the couple find that Seretse’s uncle refuses to recognize his legitimacy to the chieftaincy. The timing is crap because Bordering South Africa has just established apartheid – the legal system of racial segregation that removed much of the rights of people of color and simultaneously strengthened its ruling white minority.
Because Seretse and Ruth’s interracial marriage would be illegal in South Africa, and the country is a significant power in the region, Britain intervenes to pressure them into a divorce. Throw in enforced exile, a reminder that Winston Churchill was a Tory Prime Minister and that South Africa was mining uranium for England’s, and its own, nuclear weapons programs.
That sounds like a lot to unpack, but A United Kingdom gets its period context across in the background. To be clear, the movie isn’t particularly original, challenging to its audience or nuanced. The antagonists are clearly that, they sneer and relish the conflict they met out, while the protagonists are compassionate, empathetic foils. They take the moral high ground, they sacrifice their own happiness for the betterment of their followers, and they do so out of sincere altruism. But the movie hits all the right beats and delivers a solid feel good drama whose themes are still, unfortunately, all too relevant.
It works because Oyelowo and Pike deliver solid performances and Asante’s direction deftly navigates the mountain of context and exposition. Summarizing the plot for this review, I’m surprised with how much of the political climate she got across and how much sense it all made.
A United Kingdom sets up the racism/sexism/disenfranchisement of the period with a disquieting banality. It’s pretty on the nose, but there are real moments of discomfort in the way people are quietly, vocally and physically opposed to the relationship between Seretse and Ruth. And it’s important because interracial relationships are still scant in films and television, and even rarer when between a white woman and a person of color.
So, while A United Kingdom may not have all of the nuanced social criticism I like to watch, its timing is pretty spectacular. After the Brexit referendum, and now after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, it’s not a problem that the movie goes for simplicity in its morals. Because it works. It hits all the right beats. The quotidian David and Goliath confrontation comes up and there are genuine moments of triumph for Ruth and Seretse. The two make for legitimately inspiring figures.
If anything, it holds my complete descent into misanthropy and pessimism at bay for a little while longer. And I think that’s a good thing.