THE TRUE STORY BEHIND A UNITED KINGDOM The UNITED KINGDOM is based on extraordinary true events. In 1947, Seretse Khama, King of Botswana, fell in love with a London clerk, Ruth Williams. Her marriage was opposed by her two families and the governments of Britain and South Africa. But Seretse and Ruth defied their families, apartheid, and the British Empire – their love was stronger than any obstacle. She changed the fortunes of a nation and inspired the whole world.
Between London in the late 1940s and the picturesque expanses of Botswana, director Amma Asante (BELLE) tells a true story with her fantastic leading actors David Oyelowo (SELMA) and Rosamund Pike (GONE GIRL), which is unparalleled in terms of suspense and romance.
THE TRUE STORY BEHIND A UNITED KINGDOM
THE TRUE STORY BEHIND A UNITED KINGDOM – How it began and continues to this day
Seretse Khama’s father, King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), died when Seretse was four years old. Too young to succeed to the throne, his uncle Tshekedi Khama was installed as regent, and Seretse enjoyed a good education and a law degree in Great Britain. There he met Ruth Williams from London. After less than a year, the young couple married – and thus became the target of the highest diplomatic circles.
Because Bechuanaland was a “Protectorate” at the time under the protection and influence of the British Empire, Neighboring South Africa, in turn, also belonged to the Empire, which pursued strict racial segregation between blacks and whites with apartheid. But not only did the British government try by all means to have the marriage annulled, the people of Bechuanaland, especially Seretse’s uncle, were initially strictly against their marriage. None of this would deter Seretse and Ruth Khama in their love – even when the Empire banished Seretse into British exile, and he was no longer allowed to return to his country as regent. In 1962, Seretse Khama founded Botswana’s first Democratic Party and was elected the country’s first President with a clear majority. During his presidency, the country experienced a strong economic and social upswing. Since Seretse died in 1980, Botswana has been a democracy, and the current President of the country is Seretse and Ruth’s firstborn son, Ian Khama.
The director AMMA ASANTE in conversation
What interested you in this story?
UNITED KINGDOM is a beautiful love story that inspired an entire nation and paved the way for Botswana’s independence. This was mainly due to Seretse Khama. The love between him and Ruth Williams was an important event in the country’s history.
How did you find out about the project?
David Oyelowo told me about it. I had never heard of the story from Seretse Khama or Ruth Williams. But I immediately noticed that it was not only about a unique love story but also about the independence movement in Africa. In addition, the power that radiated from this couple was incredibly strong. It could have been a perfectly normal love story in which two people come together, but instead, the film is mainly about the consequences of their love: they ultimately proved that their love was stronger than the might of the British Empire.
How do you feel about the relationship between Ruth and Seretse?
Initially, they were so in love that they didn’t even consider the consequences of their relationship. The mere fact that a man from Africa, the king of a nation, would bring back a woman from England was unheard of. Not only was she politically inexperienced, but also that with her, a white became queen – for most people in Bechuanaland at that time, the whites were considered colonialists. A white queen – that was a scandal.
What interests you about historical dramas?
Not only do such themes often disappear from historiography, but they are then often told from a distorted perspective. The ordinary people at the center, the real heroes of the story, rarely get a chance to tell the story from their point of view, but with this film, we managed to do just that. Historical dramas explain the past to us and give us a glimpse of a possible future. They give us a standard against which we can measure ourselves: who we are today, who we were yesterday, and who we want to be in the future. That’s why historical dramas are so interesting to me.
How did you want to do justice to Seretse Khama’s legacy in the film?
It is wonderful that we are now putting Seretse Khama alongside Nelson Mandela.
Can. He stands for strength, for principles, and is a strong ruler. I was just about to question the latter in the film. Does he merely rule, or is he serving his people? Although he married a white English woman, he neither abandoned nor neglected his people.
On the contrary, it motivated him to show love for his people. With such big, almost unbelievable stories, I focus on the small, intimate details that make up the big picture. I knew that with the film, I was contributing to Seretse’s legacy, but above all, I wanted to do justice to him as a person – as a lover, as a father, and as a king who had to lead his country.
How was working with David Oyelowo?
I have known David for almost twenty years, and as we both have African roots and grew up in the UK, this story holds a special meaning. This film is David’s best acting performance to date. I know characters like Seretse: although I didn’t grow up surrounded by heads of state, I grew up amongst African men who displayed dignity and intellect – characters we seldom see on screen. It was a very important role for David and an honor for me to be handed this story to me as a director.
And how was working with Rosamund Pike?
She shows a quiet grandeur and enormous screen presence simultaneously- she shines. David had worked with her before, and we sent her the script. We didn’t know how she would react to that, but I knew she was the one when she got back to me. She immediately felt a deep connection to the story, which was evident in the conversation. We wanted to give the role to an actress who shared our passion for the project.
How was the chemistry between the two main actors?
Your love must be believable. You have to understand that their fight is based on conviction. The special relationship between Seretse and Ruth isn’t easy to explain, and you can’t tell before the shoot if the actors can convey that. You can try it, but you only know if it works once you see the final result. On the set, Rosamund and David got along well and, above all, internalized the nature of their characters. You understood how this relationship managed to withstand political pressure.
How was it when Ian Khama, the President of Botswana and son of Seretse Khama, visited the set?
I knew he would come by helicopter that day. We were shooting a big, important scene of all places in the village where Seretse was born when I heard the helicopter – and we weren’t done with the scene! I knew: As soon as he landed, there would be chaos. The extras came from the village, and the film crew wanted to see the President. Luckily his visit was late, and we could finish shooting the scene. When Ian Khama finally came and saw David and Ruth – both still in costume – he said he felt his parents were alive again.
The leading actor DAVID OYELOWO in conversation
How did you become aware of the story?
When I was shooting another film about six years ago, one of the producers gave me Susan Williams’ book Color Bar, which later became the basis for the screenplay of A UNITED KINGDOM, as a gift to me. Just by the photo of Seretse and Ruth on the book’s cover, I knew I wanted to know more about them and contribute to this story. I read the book and knew it had to be made into a movie. But it took a long time to get there.
What attracted you to the story?
The biggest challenge was ensuring politics stayed within the love story. Nevertheless, you have to understand the politics so that the scope of the love story becomes clear. Of course, Ruth and Seretse’s story has a political dimension, but their love should be the focus. It should be clear how much this man loves his wife and how much he sacrificed for that love. It’s amazing how familiar and, at the same time, unreal this story is. Many films, including love stories, take place during this time, but none deal with the love between a black man and a white woman.
What do you think of historical dramas in general?
I grew up in England and loved watching such films, but at the same time, I thought I would never be able to act in such a film myself. For although blacks have lived in England for centuries, they are rarely found in historical D
to see ramen. Now that we’ve shot this beautiful love story in special historic locations like the House of Commons in Westminster, I’m pinching myself because I never thought it was possible. But now I’m in the thick of it: Wonderful filming locations, beautiful vintage cars, and an incredibly romantic story. It was certainly very different for people back then, but in hindsight, the 1940s feel very romantic. For example, people have always dressed excellently, despite many hardships. It was great fun bringing this world back to life.
How was working with Amma Asante?
When I first spoke to her about the story, she immediately understood the incredible potential behind it, not only in terms of the story of Ruth and Seretse, not only the political background but also how the film has to work so that all these elements are fully expressed. She told me: All the political elements in this film have to drive the love story forward. As a director, Amma is perfect for this story: you can feel that she has experienced something similar herself, so she has a heart for the story instead of just approaching it intellectually. I make no secret that, for me, the story is about feelings, longing, and a film that goes to the heart. And Amma has heart. With her as a director, you know that sometimes it can get uncomfortable and you’re challenged, but that’s wonderful and necessary for a film like this.
What can viewers take away from this film?
I hope that viewers, whether married, in love, or believing in love, experience the true love between Ruth and Seretse. The amazing thing about the two is that they show the most precious thing in love – the willingness to sacrifice yourself.
What are the main themes of this film?
As a key theme, this film shows that prejudices don’t just come from one group. I find that impressive. Prejudice is everywhere. We all have prejudices. The fact that this black man and this white woman are getting married creates prejudices among blacks and whites, the poor and rich, politicians and the people. Making films about discrimination is challenging because it’s still ubiquitous in our society. The prejudices are the reason why it is so difficult to produce such films. It would be best if you had fellow campaigners willing to face your fears. And more people want to see such films than the film industry believes. I hope viewers will accept this film for what it’s meant to be: as a tribute to love.
The leading actress ROSAMUND PIKE in conversation
What was your impression of the script?
I liked that the extraordinary love between the two is central to the story. The love between Seretse and Ruth was so strong that they could defend themselves against political opposition. Ruth wasn’t a political person at all. She had no intention of changing the world and writing history but only stood by her love for Seretse, which had strong consequences. That’s what makes the story so fascinating to me: Because Seretse and Ruth fought for their love, they fought for so much more.
What do you like about the story?
It’s a love story that’s simple on the one hand but incredibly tragic on the other. When Ruth and Seretse met in 1947, little did they know that together they would change the history of a nation. Their marriage turned into a political scandal, with repercussions for the British government and the people of Botswana – none of them could have foreseen it. What they did was radical for their time, when marriages between blacks and whites hardly existed. That shows the power of this story: it is true and real.
Do you understand Ruth Williams’ experiences?
Ruth, who until then had never left Great Britain, suddenly had to consider the completely foreign Botswana as her home. And not only that: by marrying Seretse, she must rule as queen, a people who naturally distrust a white woman in this position. In the eyes of white people, she was also a traitor: she looked British, she spoke like a British woman, and she wore the right clothes, but marrying a black man had made her a different person. Her strength and uncompromising nature frightened the British. They found her intolerable.
How did the people of Botswana react to Ruth?
One scene is crucial: Ruth packs her things because she is to go back to England with her child the next day. As she looks out the window
looks, she sees that the village women have gathered in front of the house, and she comes out with Seretse’s sister Naledi. Naledi explains to her that the women wanted to thank Ruth. They have gifts with them: vegetables, fruit, and jewelry. At least, that’s what the script said. But when we shot the scene, the women spontaneously started singing. I understood ‘Naledi’ and asked her – still in the role – “Will they sing about you?” “No,” replied Naledi, “they sing ‘Seretse’s wife shines like the morning star’.” Ruth has been through a journey from total rejection to such a strong expression of affection, as is evident in this scene. Shooting it was incredibly emotional, and I’ve never experienced anything like it.
How was working with Amma Asante?
She was incredibly important to this film and the perfect choice. I can’t imagine it would have worked as well with any other director. What Amma has contributed is unique and wonderful. She brought experience to the film that a white male director doesn’t have. Amma brings something personal to her direction of each film and shares her experiences with you. She opens up completely, giving you the courage to do the same. With her help, we also changed the script again. In particular, the role of Naledi, Seretse’s sister, became much larger. Ruth should have another woman as a point of reference in the story. Even if the relationship with Naledi was not easy at dressed, she developed into an important one as the story progressedntRuth needed to build another strong relationship alongside Seretse.
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