'A United Kingdom' recalls the remarkable story of an African prince and his white bride

ScreenerBlog

Time and again, films with similar themes somehow emerge almost simultaneously, whether it’s action blockbusters about assaults on the White House or body-switching comedies or biopics like Capote and Infamous. At the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, two dramas are screening about real-life interracial couples whose devotion had a seismic impact.

One of those films is Jeff Nichols’ Loving, the story of Virginia couple Mildred and Richard Loving, whose marriage in 1958 resulted in their arrest and banishment from their home state. Their struggle led to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 ruling which overturned the nation’s anti-miscegenation laws. This look back at an unenlightened time in our country’s history is often startling seen from a 21st-century vantage point, and is made especially memorable by Ruth Negga’s subtle, delicate performance as Mildred Loving.

The making of Loving will be featured in Film Journal International’s November issue, so let’s turn to the other historic black-white romance being showcased at TIFF: A United Kingdom. This drama marks another astonishing real-life story about race and history from Belle director Amma Asante; it’s the Loving saga a decade earlier, with momentous international repercussions.

David Oyelowo of Selma fame plays Seretse Khama, the prince of the African nation of Bechuanaland (today’s Botswana). While studying law in London in 1947, Seretse is immediately smitten with Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a middle-class office worker who’s attending a Missionary Society dance. The feeling is mutual. The two fall in love before Ruth learns of Seretse’s royal lineage, and when he proposes, she doesn’t hesitate to take the huge leap that will involve moving to Africa. But the pair are virtually the only people in the film who are color-blind; Ruth’s father kicks her out of the house, and Seretse’s uncle, who raised him since he was orphaned, is furious at the prospect of his nation paying homage to a white queen.

Seretse and Ruth enter their marriage underestimating the price it will cost them. Britain, which has financial interests in a neighboring South Africa just commencing its heinous apartheid policy, conspires against this pioneering couple, resulting in Seretse’s exile from his native land while Ruth stays behind in Bechuanaland.

In the film’s first 15 minutes tracking their romance, Ruth and Seretse seem to be living a charmed existence divorced from the constrictions of the late 1940s. But a backlash is inevitable, and it’s harsh and surreal.

This remarkable true story wouldn’t work without chemistry between its two leads, and Oyelowo and Pike certainly ignite it, their characters fiercely rebelling against the prejudices on both sides of their cultural divide. Evoking his fiery Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, so unfathomably overlooked for an Oscar nomination, Oyelowo is especially dynamic in a scene in which he pleads his case to his African public to endorse him as their next king, despite the white woman he’s chosen as their queen.

Like Belle, the true story of the mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy admiral who was raised as a British aristocrat in the 1700s, A United Kingdom portrays an obscure episode in history that sheds a fascinating light on quite unexpected race relations and human progress. Does it take a black woman from England to find and scrape together the financing for such important unknown stories? Whatever the answer, Amma Asante is a welcome new voice in Toronto and beyond.