David Oyelowo spent six years trying to bring the incredible story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams Khama to the screen. The results of that hard work are on display in “A United Kingdom” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and is now heading to theaters this Friday.
The interracial couple’s marriage rocked Britain and the world in the late 1940’s not only because they were from different ethnic backgrounds, but because Seretse was a member of the royal family of Bechuanaland (now the Republic of Botswana). It sparked anger within South Africa who was imposing Apartheid at the time and were outraged a landlocked nation within its borders would dare to have the head of state married to a white woman. Dishearteningly, the British government sided with South Africa in their disapproval, as Ruth’s homeland was desperate for the commonwealth nation’s cheap gold and uranium shipments in the years following WWII. Moreover, Seretse’s own family was against the union only backing down when the people voiced their approval. And that was only the beginning of their journey.
Like the important stories in “Loving” and “Hidden Figures,” Seretse and Ruth’s battle were lost (perhaps intentionally by some) to history. That’s one reason Oyelowo was so passionate about bringing it to the big screen. He simply couldn’t believe he didn’t know about it before he did.
“It was in 2010, I was on a set in Atlanta working on a film called ’96 minutes’ and the producer on that film had the rights to this book called ‘The Colour Bar’ which was about Ruth and Seretse,” Oyelowo recalls. “As a very proud person of African descent I just thought I should know this story. And as an actor and as someone who wants to see films about Africa that are epic, and sweeping, and unexpected, and unknown, everything about this story just felt like it lent itself to a cinematic rendering.”
The “Selma” star also wanted to see a real African man depicted on screen who was a leader to his people. He notes, “So often from Africa now it seems we see quite the opposite when it comes to the African characters being portrayed in the film, especially when it has an outsider perspective, i.e. a film made by an American filmmaker or a white male filmmaker who has more of an outsider perspective than an insider perspective.”
Oyelowo, who produced and stars as Seretse, suggested former colleague Amma Asante (“Belle”) to direct and recruited Rosamund Pike to play Ruth. The final film has earned favorable reviews and will not only educate but move those who go and see it.
An Academy member for just a few years, Oyelowo has already seen wild inconsistency in the inclusion of people of color in the Oscar nominating process. With a dramatic increase in minority representation among this year’s nominees just one year after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy I asked him if he believed Hollywood was moving in the right direction. His passion on this subject was empowering as he initially shifted focus to a group he feels are equally disenfranchised in the studio system, female filmmakers.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that it’s not only people in front of the camera, but also behind the camera who have been recognized this year,” Oyelowo says. “We have editors, cinematographers, black female producers who have been recognized this year. And I think that’s significant because until there is an industry-wide acknowledgement and participation of people of color, then I’ll know that we’re truly doing our job correctly. Any hesitancy I’m having of truly doing cartwheels about it all is very tied to the fact that we have a really reprehensible record when it comes to female directors. It’s something that I’m very passionate about because I just don’t understand why female directors aren’t getting to direct movies and certainly as a result because the numbers are so low, the chances of them being acknowledged at something like the Academy Awards is slim to none. And for a long time, for longer than should be the case, it’s been none.”