A forbidden love can often times create a powerful rift amongst family members, but one of the strongest bonds of the 20th century ultimately overcame harrowing taboos and redefined relationships between two continents. Seretse Khama, who was born into one of the most powerful royal families of Bechuanaland, felt such a strong connection to British resident Ruth Williams soon after they met, he was willing to give up his role of king in order to marry her. The couple’s struggle to protect their love from opposition in both of their countries as they settled into their new life together in Africa left a powerful change in how government and citizens’ private lives influence each other. That lasting impact is grippingly showcased in the stunning new biopic, ‘A United Kingdom.’
The drama, which stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as the influential real-life couple, enthrallingly showcases how Seretse willingly gave up his right to the throne, despite the pressure he received from his family and international governments, in order to defend what he believes in. In order to celebrate that strong commitment, Fox Searchlight Pictures is releasing ‘A United Kingdom,’ which was directed by Amma Asante and written by Guy Hibbert, today in select theaters.
‘A United Kingdom’ follows Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), the heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (which was renamed Botswana after it became an independent country in 1966), who’s studying law in London after the end of World War II. While there, he meets a London-born office worker, Ruth Williams (Pike), at a dance at Nutford House, which was organized by the London Missionary Society. The two quickly fall in love, but their future is uncertain, as his uncle, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), has written to him and informed him that he must return to his home country. So the couple decides to marry, so that they can stay together.
When Ruth first accepts Seretse’s proposal, neither of them realize that their impending marriage will cause an international political crisis. Not only does Tshekedi object his nephew’s union, but so does Ruth’s father, George (Nicholas Lyndhurst). But the couple marries anyway, and Seretse brings his new wife home to Bechuanaland. Tshekedi feels betrayed, as he has raised his nephew like a son, and has been the country’s regent while Seretse attended school and prepared to take the reins of power. Seretse’s uncle also feels that having a white wife is an insult to the entire country, and he demands the future king divorce Ruth or renounce his throne.
Since Bechuanaland is an British protectorate, the English government also agrees that Seretse and Ruth should divorce. Britain has made a deal with the racially divided South Africa, which won’t accept an interracial married royal couple living on its border. While the British Parliament and two prime ministers maneuver the political turmoil in Africa, Ruth and Seretse peaceful refuse to give up on their love. The couple determinedly does whatever it takes to keep their family, as well as their country, unified during another era of turmoil.
Oyelowo generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘A United Kingdom’ during a roundtable interview at The Peninsula Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the actor discussed that as soon as he read the 2007 book the script was based on, ‘Colour Bar’ by Susan Williams, he was immediately drawn to play the first president of Botswana in the film adaptation. Oyelowo also instantly thought Pike would be the perfect choice to play the leader’s wife, as she could enigmaticly bring the woman the leader gave up his role of king for to the screen.
Throughout his acting career, Oyelowo has portrayed several other iconic real-life people; in addition to playing Khama in ‘A United Kingdom,’ he has also portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in ‘Selma’ and Joe ‘Lightning’ Little in ‘Red Tails.’ The actor admitted that “It’s quite hazardous playing real people, especially when they’re of historical significance. So many people have a strong opinion of how they should be portrayed” if they’re going to be featured in a film. “It’s not like playing a fictional character, where you’re allowed to have a creative license to have a convergence between yourself and the character,” the Golden Globe-nominated actor explained.
When playing a real person, “What I have found to be true is that at a certain point, you do have to accept that this is your interpretation of this historical figure…So for me, playing Seretse Khama, it was about doing all of the research, and speaking to all o the people, that I could…Then I could play the truth of a given situation. There’s a person I have put together in me. I thought about what he would do when he was confronted with Ruth, or when he had to talk to thousands of people about his wife. At some point, I had to let it go, and trust that I could tell the truth,” Oyelowo explained.
But the actor felt that there was a difference in playing his character in both ‘Selma’ and ‘A United Kingdom.’ He pointed out that ‘Selma’ “is a more political film, and it looks at both the movement and the man. But (‘A United Kingdom’) is a love story, and the politics are the backdrop. It’s more of a character-driven narrative, and I love that about it.” He added that while the conflict between Bechuanaland, England and South Africa is shown, “at the end of the day, (the film) is about these two people who fell in love and stayed together.”
While Oyelowo doesn’t necessarily feel as much pressure from audiences when he’s playing a real-life person, like Khama, who isn’t as well-known as Dr. King, he still puts in the same amount of work into all of his roles. “Whenever I take on a role like this, I do everything I can to do the best job I can, and to tell the truth. At the end of the day, the pressure I put on myself far outweighs the pressure I receive from anyone else,” he revealed.
Oyelowo was first introduced to the Khamas’ story while he was filming the 2011 thriller, ’96 Minutes,’ in Atlanta. One of the producers, “Justin Moore-Lewy, who’s also a producer on this film, had the rights to the book, ‘Colour Bar.'” The performer added that he remembers when he stepped into his trailer on the set of ’96 Minutes’ one day, Moore-Lewy “presented me with this book. I just couldn’t imagine this guy in a trench coat arm-in-arm with this woman, and being so much in love. There was something so intoxicating about (Seretse and Ruth) together. When I read the book, I also couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about this story, especially as a person of African descent myself.”
When Oyelowo decided to star in, and produce, ‘A United Kingdom,’ he thought Pike would be a good candidate to play Ruth in the biopic, as he knew of her work ethic from when they starred in ‘Jack Reacher’ together. “You can never really predict what a Rosamund Pike performance is going to be. I couldn’t necessarily picture what her Ruth was going to be, but I knew it would be good,” the actor pointed out. He added that he wanted the actress who was going to be cast as Ruth “to be enigmatic. She had to be someone who a man like Seretse could fall in love with, even without knowing her that well.”
Oyelowo also spoke about embracing the experience of working with a female director on both ‘A United Kingdom’ and ‘Selma.’ The actor helped Asante and Ava DuVernay sign on to direct both films. The actor first worked with DuVernay on the 2012 drama, ‘Middle of Nowhere.’ “I thought she was an amazing director, and was therefore very keen for her to direct ‘Selma.’ What I learned from her working on ‘Selma’ is how important the perspective of the person directing. Her perspective enabled the women in ‘Selma’ to become more three-dimensional,” he explained.
Since DuVernay “is a black woman who recognized how pivotal the roles of the women were in the Civil Rights Movement, and she wanted to see that on screen. What that gave my character was more dimension. We not only saw Dr. King as a political mind, but we also got to see the father, husband and friend, and so much of that was Ava’s perspective.
“So when we were putting ‘A United Kingdom’ together, I knew that I wanted this to be a love story first and foremost; I didn’t want it to just be a political film. A lot of the men we sat down with were more interested in the politics…meanwhile, I was thinking, this prince is giving up his kingdom for this woman. Their perspective was very much what we’ve already seen so often, which is to marginalize the black characters, and focus more on the politics than the emotional side,” Oyelowo explained. But in working with Asante, the biopic was turned into a love story, which is what he always hoped it would be, the actor added.
While the Khamas married almost 70 years ago, Oyelowo feels the political climate that plagued them at the time of their wedding, and throughout their entire relationship, is still relevant today. “I think anyone who’s watching the news now can realize it’s a very complicated and overwhelming time. But I do truly believe that the anecdote to all of this is quite simple-it’s love. That can sound a bit corny,” the perormer admitted, “but when you watch a film like ‘A United Kingdom,’ you literally see love in action. You do see that it does have the power to overcome political, tribal and familial obstacles.
“I think that if we can decide that regardless of political agendas, if love is what we can lead with, no government agenda can overcome that. Prejudice is born out of fear. Everything that we’re dealing with, including the rise of nationalism to the incredibly contentious election we just had, has to do with people thinking, I’m right and you’re wrong,” Oyelowo pointed out. “But if you’re coming from a place of sacrificial love, and thinking, what can I do for you…then I think we can stand a chance.”