Prince’s Bride: Amma Asante depicts a sensational 1940s romance in ‘A United Kingdom’

Movies Features

The troubled romance that helped instigate Botswana's drive for independence unfolds in A United Kingdom, a Fox Searchlight release opening on Feb. 10. Starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as the real-life Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, the movie shows how the couple met and fell in love, provoking an international crisis.

Amma Asante admits that she did not know much about Khama and Williams when she was approached to direct A United Kingdom. But she was close with Oyelowo, one of the producers on the project. In fact, she gave the actor his first television job on a BBC series 18 years ago.

Oyelowo and his fellow producers had procured the rights to Susan Williams' book about the couple, Colour Bar. The actor had just finished the Martin Luther King biopic Selma, Asante the 18th-century drama Belle, and the timing was right for the two to work together again.

As A United Kingdom starts, Seretse is a law student in London; Ruth, the older of two daughters of a middle-class salesman. As they start to fall in love, Seretse warns her that he is the descendant of a tribal king, and will be expected to rule when he returns home. But marrying a white from their colonial rulers upsets many of his subjects.

Speaking by phone during a break from her latest project, Asante went through the steps she took to prepare Guy Hibbert's script for shooting. Among her challenges was finding a way to portray the film's 1947 settings.

"It was harder in many ways than Belle, because the 18th century is so far away, so different from what we are today," she explains. "1947 is really not so long ago. We had to keep the period as pure as possible—clothes, hair, everything. Making sure nothing could be mistaken for contemporary. I made David shave a part into his hair because I remembered my dad used to."

Portraying what Botswana looked like in 1947, when it was a Protectorate of the United Kingdom called Bechuanaland, provided a different set of problems. "My parents were from Africa, but from a country that looks very different to Botswana, which is flat, dry, arid. I wanted to make sure that we were very clear about the character of this country, the architecture of its landscape. It was important to get the juxtaposition between London and Serowe, the village that Seretse came from."

Asante and her crew needed the cooperation of the government to film in Botswana, but they also had to explain themselves to the chiefs in individual villages where they shot. This is by far Asante's biggest production, with some 4,000 extras used in some scenes. And as temperatures reached 122 degrees Fahrenheit on some days, safety became an issue.

"The way to get through, we essentially hydrated as much as possible," Asante remembers. "You're going to have to be drinking all day every day, and when you get home at night keep drinking. We were on a tight schedule, but somehow we managed."

Asante credits cinematographer Sam McCurdy, "a great collaborator," with helping smooth the production. "He's very clear at what a cinematographer does and what a director does. We went through the script scene by scene, line by line. I showed him my mood board, our location photos and notes, so that he had a full understanding of the world we were trying to put together. What Sam did for and with me was allow me to fly."

In one pivotal scene, Seretse Khama appears at a kgotla, a sort of open community meeting. He must persuade his listeners there that he not only deserves to be their king, but that they should accept his bride as well.

"In reality that speech, or conversation really, went on for about four days," Asante reveals. "We chose to make it intense, a one-off speech, and fit as many people as we possibly could into the area. Make it as big as possible. What I wanted to communicate was that this was as important as Brexit was for the Brits, as the Greeks deciding whether or not to stay with the euro."

The scene took two days to shoot, Asante using four cameras and two cranes to get the wide shots with extras first before focusing on Oyelowo's closer shots. "We had already shot David's ending speech before we shot the kgotla speech," Asante says. "So he was very prepared as Seretse. But he had just come from Selma and I think what was a challenge for him was not getting the same response from extras as he did on Selma."

Asante told Oyelowo that he might never get the reaction he imagined prior to shooting the kgotla scene, that he would have to create that atmosphere internally and rely on Asante's editing to build the reactions fully.

"So having gone through his final scene, and gone through that challenge of getting unexpected reactions, the extras taking their time to really warm up, by the time we got to the kgotla scene David was very much into the mode of understanding that the reactions he wanted were going to have to be sort of created in his head."

Since the real Seretse Khama didn't use a microphone during the kgotla, Oyelowo had to project to some 2,000 extras. He also had to sustain heightened emotions over the two days it took to shoot the scene.

"What's really important is that you don't burn the actor out in rehearsal," Asante notes. "Or that you don't burn them out in the first couple of shots. It's really important to try to get actors to pace themselves. And a constant fear was that David's voice was going to die.

"So it's building the performance, really, asking him to hold back when we are doing faraway shots, when essentially we just need a body on the stage. And then making sure that he's very aware when we're coming in to close-ups and mid-shots. You know those really important shots where the eyes are going to tell us something. But David's aware of all of that, he paces himself and doesn't waste all that emotion when we're shooting through 2,000 heads, for instance."

Although she began her career as a child actor, Asante says that as a director she is more a collaborator than the judges or authority figures directors were to her. "I try very much with my actors to be a collaborator," she says. "It's often about pushing them to go a little bit further, but knowing when to stop at the same time. You have to know the actor. Rosamund would peak at different points to David, for instance. I think knowing them, knowing their stresses and strains, knowing their strengths, knowing when you're able to keep pushing to get something a little bit more from them—that's all really important in the process."

Asante points to a line in Oyelowo's kgotla speech, words to the effect that "I love my people, but I love my wife." "Sometimes it's as simple as saying, 'I think you've got a little bit more to give me,'" Asante explains. "Maybe push the emotion more. Or, for instance, if he's been talking to an audience like they're a crowd of 4,000, maybe asking for a line to be spoken in a way where he is simply speaking to his brother across the room. To make it more intimate, to make it smaller, to make it more personal and heartfelt."

Getting the material was one thing, shaping it with editors Jon Gregory and Jonathan Amos another. "That scene was deeply emotional from beginning to end," she says. "But we needed to build it, make sure that we climaxed at that moment where he says, 'I love my people...' As opposed to having it coast at a very high emotional level all the way through."

Asante and her editors started the scene with predominantly wide shots featuring lots of extras, to reflect the facts Seretse was using to make his case. "At the beginning he's talking about his heritage, where his grandfather was buried," Asante says. "So we tried to reflect that in the way we used the shots, using takes where David wasn't too emotional, using shots that would help the audience understand the scale of the kgotla, what it's used for, its place in the community."

As he delivers the line, a tear courses down Oyelowo's cheek, the impact of his extraordinary performance underscored by the editing surrounding it. "It took a long time," Asante admits. "it took many, many cuts for us to do that and many views, hours of discussion. The moment came to David very naturally, but we had to be sure we crafted the shots around it in the strongest way. Sometimes you worry that when you talk something through too much and you spend too much time cutting, you can overcut and end up killing it. But this was such an important moment that it really warranted taking our time."

Asante has just finished shooting her next project, Where Hands Touch, a coming-of-age story about a biracial girl in Nazi Germany. "It's a project that I've been trying to get off the ground for a very long time, over a decade," she reveals. "It has the lovely Amandla Stenberg, George MacKay, Abbie Cornish, Chris Eccleston. We got the financing together right after I finished A United Kingdom.”

Despite incidents of appalling racism and political treachery, A United Kingdom moves at a calm, measured pace. Viewers in the U.S. familiar with the Civil Rights era might expect harsher language, more overt hostility.

"But we wanted to make sure that we used language that was being used in England at the time," Asante argues. "The 'n' word, for example, was not a word that was used as much in the U.K., although there were many other terms used that were equally racist."

The director also notes that England did not have the same experience with slavery as did the American colonies. "I'm a child of parents who grew up in a colony and saw it become independent," she says. "Not to say racism here was any less difficult, but the people who were coming over in ’47 and just a little bit afterwards were, can I say very loosely and with quotation marks, 'invited.' They were invited to do the jobs that British people at the time didn't want to do—help and support the National Health Service, drive buses, those sorts of things.

"So there was a very thin veil of 'respectability' applied to race in England at that time. Though you didn't need to scrape too far beneath the surface to find the harsh realities."