Amma Asante: “In order to understand how powerful that couple’s love was, you had to understand the State...what it was they were standing up against.”
United Kingdom ****
Politics as reflected through the prism of a powerful love story between President of Botswana Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and British-born Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). (His subjects referred to her as “the African Queen.”) Director Amma Asante skillfully blends color into her narrative, letting viewers know what part of the world they’re in at all times, thanks in large part to her deployment of light and saturation. We never lose sight of what the couple is standing up against; for a novel change, it’s the love story that drives the politics. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert and Asante pull off a precision balancing act, illuminating the intensity of the love the couple shared and never once allowing their romance to take a back seat to the issues. Had she chosen to take the opposite approach, Asante and company would no doubt be up to their eyeballs in Oscar nominations. As is, this stands taller than any of 2017’s best picture nominees.
Narrative cinema rarely unearths heretofore overlooked historical truth, but three of least year’s releases — Denial, Hidden Figures, and now A United Kingdom — have their heart set on proving that adage wrong.
Filmmaker Amma Asante (Belle) thought she’d heard all of the fascinating stories involving the various countries in Africa and their journeys towards independence. That changed the night David Oyelowo, her friend of 18 years and eventual leading man in A United Kingdom, introduced her to the romance between President of Botswana Seretse Khama and his British bride Ruth Williams.
Ms. Asante and I spoke just hours before kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday. When it came to A United Kingdom, we were both cheering for the same team.
Scott Marks: Do you remember the first film your parents took you to see when you were a kid, and do remember the first film you saw that made you want to direct?
Amma Asante: I do remember the first film I was taken to see, but it was by my big brother. I was 5 and he was 15 and it was Bambi.
AA (Laughing): For a five-year-old it was.
Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams: “It felt like it was a world against them.”
SM: Your mom ran a deli in London. My old man owned and operated a little burger joint when I was growing up that I have fond memories of. Would you share a few memories about what it was like growing up in a deli?
AA: The area where my mother had the deli was a place called Shepherd’s Bush in London. It was very multicultural, very multiracial. I started running around the shop probably around the age of three. Everybody in that vicinity knew me, so it was not possible for me to get lost. I had a real sense of freedom in the area. If I wandered off too far some other shopkeeper would bring me back to my mom or to my dad. I have great memories of seeing my parents work very hard but enjoying the work that they did. I’m grateful to that deli because it earned enough money for them to be able to send me to drama school. Most of all what it gave me was a great sense of community. I really experienced a great sense of community through my parents having that shop.
SM: Your first acting job in America was in Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. You were barely in your teens when the campaign kicked off, but in retrospect, do you think it was a good idea?
Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in A United Kingdom.
AA: I came because I was an actress. I was appearing on television in a high school drama in the U.K. that went on for some 25 years. What I discovered when I was doing that series was that I was not a very good actress. (Laughing.) But I became aware of the powerful performances around me, and I began to admire the power of storytelling. It was the key thing that made me want to become a writer. When we came to visit the White House, it was because of a powerful storyline we became involved with through the series. It dealt with one of our characters becoming a heroin addict. It was a character that children in the U.K. had watched grow up.
I’m glad that we came at that time. I’m glad that I got to experience America for the first time. The trip to the White House widened my parameters and world landscape. Knowing and understanding how the power of the story was able to reach America made me want to become a storyteller.
A United Kingdom trailer
SM: Before seeing your movie, I had never heard of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams. You must get this question a lot. When did you first become familiar with their story?
AA: I’m with you. Until David Oyelowo, who I go back a very long way with…18 years. We worked together on the first TV series I wrote and produced. He was an actor just out of drama school, and it was his first role. He called me one evening and said, “I just finished reading Susan Williams’ Colour Bar. It’s the story of…” and he proceeded to unfold the story to me.
I was a little bit ashamed, if I’m honest with you. I’m the child of African parents who were raised in a colony. It was very political. At least my father was. I thought I had heard most of the stories, but I didn’t know this one. I didn’t know about Botswana’s history, about Botswana’s place in the world today. It really wasn’t until David called me and sent me a photo essay of the couple that I became familiar with the story.
These images were fascinating to look at, the couple both in Botswanaland as it was then and in the U.K. Seretse was very much a kind of character that I recognized — a dignified, educated African man walking through the streets of the U.K. It reminded me very much of old photographs of my father when he came to London just a decade later.
So I did not know of the story. There was a script that existed at the time. And also Susan William’s book, which is just incredible. I felt that I really got to understand the couple once I started to read her book. I wish that I had known it earlier, but I simply hadn’t. It was the book that really brought it to me.
SM: What makes this work for me is your reluctance to push the issues to the point they overshadow romance. Usually it’s the other way around. How difficult was it to achieve that kind of balance?
AA: When I first came to the project as I say, a script existed. There was a great discussion amongst everybody that had been on the project long before me that it was very important for this to be purely a love story and for the politics to really take a back foot.
While I understood why everyone was saying that, I felt that in order to understand how powerful that couple’s love was, you had to understand the State. You had to understand what it was they were standing up against. The fact that it was not just two continents, that it was three governments three countries…it felt like it was a world against them. And you had to understand that. Otherwise it took away from the love.
I definitely wanted to include all of the politics. In fact, I introduced more when I came onto the project. But the politics had to be shown through the gaze of the love story. The love story had to drive everything, even the politics.