Last fall, the film Loving dramatized the true story of the interracial couple at the center of an historic Supreme Court case. In 1967, the justices who heard Loving vs. State of Virginia determined unanimously that race-based restrictions on marriage were unconstitutional. This is history with a capital H. But, what made the movie immensely watchable was its focus on Mildred and Richard’s relationship rather than that relationship’s lasting legal significance. Ruth Negga was recognized with an Oscar nomination for her moving performance.
In 1947 London, it was legal for a black man and a white woman to marry. But, as we learn in A United Kingdom, the deeply satisfying new film by director Amma Asante, that doesn’t mean it was easy.
On a whim, Ruth Williams, middle-class office worker, joins her outgoing sister at a church dance, where the local clergy hopes to convert students visiting from Africa. There, her eyes meet Seretse, a charismatic young man who turns out to be a fan of jazz, a recreational boxer, and — oh yes — the future king of Bechuanaland. This complicates things, as you can imagine. But, Seretse soon realizes that he cannot rule his people without the woman he loves by his side. If this sounds a little like Wallis and Windsor, just wait. It may be a decade later, but the British government remains just as intractable.
Despite the disapproval (denunciation might be a better word) of her parents, Ruth marries Seretse, and leaves her family, home and life behind. The couple travel to Bechuanaland, where they face opposition on every front. The British authorities (who have settled in nicely with their “Whites Only” hotels and cocktail lounges) cannot accept the union without alienating neighboring South Africa, rich in uranium and gold and where apartheid is being established. Meanwhile, Seretse’s own uncle, the current regent, will not accept Ruth. “How can you possibly be the ‘mother of our country’?” his wife demands when they are left alone together. The Khamas’ options are limited and ghastly: abdication, divorce and/or exile. One particularly slimy British official offers Seretse a diplomatic position in Jamaica. “But it is not my home,” Seretse objects. “I’ve heard there are similarities,” the Englishman shrugs.
Even Winston Churchill plays a significant (albeit off-camera) role in determining the couple’s fate. Building on the public’s interest in the star-crossed lovers, Churchill campaigns with a promise to allow them to return to Bechuanaland. Once elected, however, he changes his tune, putting Britain’s financial and political interests ahead of their happiness. (I for one was quite disappointed in the Prime Minister’s behavior. I’d grown rather fond of him after devouring the first season of The Crown.) But, Ruth’s eloquent appeal to Churchill furthers their cause and helps her own father accept her husband.
Racism, while apparent throughout A United Kingdom, is not the only story here. Bechuanaland is supposed to be an independent protectorate. However, some early mining efforts promise the potential of diamonds and the Khama marriage gives the Brits a good reason to take over completely. The stakes are very high for Seretse’s people and he becomes a champion of self-rule and democracy.