By Sofia Jesus
Cinema is meant to make you dream, I know. But it often tastes sweeter to me when the dream you’re given to dream — full of love-conquers-all, and brave, good-hearted characters successfully fighting prejudice and intolerance, and defeating the unjust all-powerful — is based on reality.
That was the case with A United Kingdom (2016), by Amma Asante. The beautiful true story alone makes it worth to watch. But so does David Oyelowo’s performance.
David Oyelowo plays the role of Seretse Khama, the King of Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana). He is a man of principles — polite and apparently fragile, yet determined, passionate; a visionary — sent by his uncle and guardian to study in London so that he would later get back home to rule and lead his country in Africa into a brighter future for all living there. While in England, he falls in love with a British clerk named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) who shares his interest in jazz and dancing, as well as in ideals. After a few dates, he proposes; she says yes. And it would be a simple boy-meets-girl story if the year weren’t 1948 and he weren’t black and she white; and if they hadn’t decided to live together as King and Queen in Bechuanaland — a protectorate of the British Empire — in a time South Africa was pushing forward apartheid.
Their interracial marriage soon becomes a matter of state. They are caught in an ugly, political game of interests in which unscrupulous players couldn’t care less about their right to be who they were — a couple in love. Without spoiling too much, let me just say their union is a problem for Britain and South Africa. Seretse and Ruth are aware of it; and that awareness only makes them more determined to challenge those powers, that racism, that ambition, in the name of love, equality, justice and democracy. Fortunately, they had help.
A United Kingdom is a history lesson, for sure — after I saw it, I couldn’t help doing a little research online on Botswana. BBC describes it as “one of Africa’s most stable countries,” “the continent’s most continuous multi-party democracy,” a place “relatively free of corruption” and with “a good human rights record”. Oh, and yes: it is “the world’s largest producer of diamonds”. It is not perfect though — the high prevalence of AIDS, unfortunately, is one of its problems — but that only makes it real. Reading this after watching the film somehow put my mind at ease as, at certain points — like when I expected riots instead of scuffles — the action in the film seemed too delicate, too civilised and peaceful to be believable.
The true tale told in A United Kingdom is truly inspiring. It exposes a rotten world of political intrigue, but it makes you believe in the power of love, and, most importantly, in the power of ideas — like those of justice and equality. It makes you dream, yes: not as much because it tells you this could happen, but mostly because it tells you it did.