A United Kingdom: How one relationship reshaped the world

21 Mar 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

7 mins
A United Kingdom poster crop
A United Kingdom poster crop

A United Kingdom tells the seemingly everyday story of a young couple meeting, falling in love and deciding to marry. For Seretse Kharma and Ruth Williams though, their decision to marry put them at the centre of a wide-reaching international controversy.

After World War Two, the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, including dozens of territories across Africa and Asia. The African nation of Bechuanaland - a country the size of France but with just 120,000 residents (now known as Botswana) - was one of a number of protectorates, where local rulers kept some traditional powers but were still subject to British overrule. Seen as having little to offer Britain, Bechuanaland was relatively lightly governed. British affairs were run on a shoestring from neighbouring South Africa, and limited resources for education and health care lead to mass malnourishment amongst the indigenous Batswana people. 

Seretse Kharma was a law student studying in London in 1947 when - at a community dance - he met Ruth Williams, a young white woman working as a clerk. After quickly falling in love, Seretse revealed that he was heir to the throne of the Bangwato nation in his native Bechuanaland - a place he would need to return to. With their cards on the table, the pair nevertheless decided to marry. However, bringing home a white wife was seen as an affront to the traditions of his tribe, and Seretse incurred the wrath of the current king, his uncle Tshekedi. There was anger in Ruth's family too: her father disapproved of the interracial match, threatening to throw Ruth out of the family.

Soon, the British government also got involved, attempting to block the marriage due to concerns around what racial equality might mean for the stability of the Empire. In South Africa - where vicious segregation laws were being introduced under apartheid - the government reacted by threatening to withhold its gold and uranium from Britain, which was still under economic strain following World War Two.

Based upon Susan Williams' book Colour Bar, A United Kingdom expertly filters the political through the prism of the personal. This approach can also be seen in the way Belle examined racism, sexism and colonialism through its story of an illegitimate mixed-race daughter raised by her aristocratic great uncle in 18th century England.

This is only the second film to be granted permission to film inside the Houses of Parliament. The building plays an important symbolic role, most notably as the backdrop for Seretse's proposal to Ruth. The film captures how decisions made inside this building by democratically elected officials impact all of our lives, sometimes positively, and sometimes with parliament functioning as a system of oppression. These themes also also explored in The Iron LadySuffragetteIn The Loop and Pride, which culminates in a triumphant march on parliament as part of the emerging LGBT movement in the 1980s. All deal with a more complicated history than we are sometimes willing to acknowledge.

Filming also took place in Botswana itself, despite conditions of intense heat and drought. This involved thousands of extras and utilised many of the actual locations Seretse and Ruth visited, as it was crucial for director Amma Asante to tell the story in as real a way as possible and to project a voice and a world rarely seen on our cinema screens. 

David Oyelowo - who plays Seretse - was frustrated at the lack of British films - particularly historical films - that contextualised the black experience and told stories from the point-of-view of black protagonists, despite the fact that black people have been part of the British identity for hundreds of years.

Asante shared Oyelowo's frustration. Born and raised in London as a child of Ghanian immigrants, she witnessed Ghana achieving independence from the British empire, and spent her childhood between both homes. For A United Kingdom, she wanted to tell the story of Botswana's journey, but also demonstrate how the story is also a crucial part of British history, highlighting governmental practices that were often racist but also acknowledging the political complexity that led to certain decisions. 

Oyelowo's success playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma helped to get A United Kingdom made, and there are definite similarities between the two men. This is particularly noticeable in a stirring piece of oratory in which Kharma attempts to overcome the scepticism of the Batswana people. There are also parallels with South Africa's Nelson Mandela, memorably played by British star Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. Mandela publicly acknowledged his admiration for Kharma, helping to facilitate stronger relations between the neighbouring countries over time.

Meanwhile, having driven an ambulance during the war, Ruth was part of a generation of young women that had to grow up fast. After the war, a life of domesticity no longer appealed, so she began working as a bank clerk. Meeting Seretse, she fell in love and saw the chance for a life of travel and adventure. But this freedom needed to be fought for; her relationships in London were also at risk. There were few mixed race couples in Britain at the time, and the Ruth and Seretse were subjected to vicious and violent prejudice. Not previously seeing herself as political, Ruth then had to quickly adjust to living a royal life in a new country where she struggled to fit in and be accepted, yet was nevertheless in a position of power. The film is as much her story that of a compassionate young woman seeking greater autonomy in her life - as it is Seretse's.

In many ways, A United Kingdom is deliberately old-fashioned. Many of its broad, Romantic tropes would be recognised in the works David Lean or Richard Attenborough. The film tells an important chapter of history that is surprisingly relatively unknown in the UK. Perhaps even more surprisingly, many in Botswana did not know the story either, despite Seretse and Ruth's son being the current president. That makes the significance of A United Kingdom all the greater.

Real understanding of our collective history comes as much from engaging with the troubling episodes of our past as it does with those moments of which we can be proud. As issues of national identity are hotly debated in Britain and around the world, Seretse and Ruth's story feels more important than ever.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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