Pioneers: David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams in A United Kingdom. Shooting was based in Serowe and Palapye in Botswana — where the actual events took place. Picture: SUPPLIED
Pioneers: David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama and Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams in A United Kingdom. Shooting was based in Serowe and Palapye in Botswana — where the actual events took place. Picture: SUPPLIED

A lovely visual trick runs throughout the film A United Kingdom. The first scenes of the African adventure are set in London, a grey and dreary place with incessant rain and a shroud of fog that casts a colourless pall over life itself.

Then the scene switches to Botswana, and the camera flies over glorious reds, browns and golds, a land of vivid sun and smiling people. The music and warmth of Africa light up the screen.

It’s a recognisable trickery, but it makes the point superbly.

A United Kingdom tells the true story of the love between Seretse Khama, the king of Botswana, and Ruth Williams, a London office worker. It happened in 1947, making theirs a ground-breaking, high-profile interracial love affair.

It’s a gorgeous film, beautifully shot and impeccably researched as it reveals the love, power and politics that many people would prefer to leave forgotten.

David Oyelowo plays Khama, sent to London as a young man to study in preparation to become the ruler of his country — then a British protectorate called Bechuanaland. Oyelowo is brilliant as the amusing, debonair and sophisticated king-to-be.

Rosamund Pike is his equal as Ruth, an open-minded pioneer in a time of small-minded racists.

The actors make an attractive, handsome couple, so as everyone in the film condemns them, the audience is rooting for them to win. "I know I will never achieve anything worthwhile if I leave my heart here," the determined Khama tells his English rose.

Acting aside, it’s incredible how the couple managed to sustain their love against the wrath of international howls of condemnation.

Their marriage was opposed by Ruth’s parents, products of a white and racist country. It was also opposed by Khama’s family, as he dared to bring home a white woman and expect his people to accept her as their ruler.

So far, so predictable. But it’s the political shenanigans that make this tale extraordinary.

SA was just formalising apartheid and couldn’t stomach seeing a brazen, mixed-race couple rule a neighbouring country. SA threatened to deny Britain access to gold and uranium, prompting the British empire’s prim and proper prats to slap down the uppity natives.

Khama wins his citizens over in a rousing speech decrying racism in all its forms. "I will not have prejudice as part of the culture of my country," he declares. It’s powerful stuff that made him a leader of a calibre rarely matched even today.

But the battle was far from over. Opposition from his Uncle Tshekedi — played with a perfect pitch of menace and distrust by South African actor Vusi Kunene — allowed the Brits to claim that tribal warfare was imminent.

Khama was tricked into visiting England and barred from returning. It seems unthinkable that a king could be kept from his own country, but such was the ugly might of the empire.

Yet the couple never faltered, and Ruth’s love for Khama and her efforts to meld into his world gradually won over the Bangwato.

In the aftermath, Khama transformed his nation from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the most prosperous and democratic in Africa. He led it to independence, scrapped the monarchy and became its first democratically elected president, to be succeeded by their eldest son, Ian, as the current president.

Many Batswana we met didn’t know the story either, shockingly, even though Seretse’s son is the current president
David Oyelowo

I didn’t know this compelling story, but neither did many Batswana, as the film makers discovered when they shot on location.

"Many Batswana we met didn’t know the story either, shockingly, even though Seretse’s son is the current president," Oyelowo says.

Like the character he plays, Oyelowo is married to a white woman, actress Jessica Oyelowo. "A United Kingdom isn’t about interracial marriage, it’s about the power of falling in love with another human being when the world around you has an opinion about it that’s contrary to your own, and then navigating it," he says.

The cast includes Terry Pheto, who is impressive as the king’s sister Naledi, initially disdainful then finally supportive. Pheto was previously best known as Miriam in the 2005 Oscar-winning Tsotsi.

A United Kingdom is directed by Amma Asante, and the screenplay by Guy Hibbert was adapted from the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams.

For her research, Williams studied more than 1,000 files in Britain’s public records office and won the co-operation of President Ian Khama, who arranged access to records, photos and people she wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

Shooting was based around Serowe and Palapye in Botswana — where the actual events took place.

"We were recreating history here, and it seemed right to make it as authentic as we could. So we shot in the actual hospital where Ruth gave birth to her children and the actual house where Ruth and Seretse first lived," producer Rick McCallum says.

• A United Kingdom opens in cinemas on December 9.

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