Based on a true story from the 1940s, a Botswana prince is threatened and ridiculed when he marries a white woman from London. Despite the odds stacked against them, they won’t let anything tear them apart.
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“A United Kingdom” is the story of the taboo love affair between a prince from Botswana and an ordinary London woman who happens to be white. Their marriage created an international furor in 1948, sparking a political chess game that left the couple divided on two continents.
David Oyelowo stars as Seretse Khama, who would ultimately become the first president of Botswana, and Rosamund Pike as Ruth, his wife. Oyelowo also serves as one of the film’s producers and was instrumental in bringing the story to the screen. A Brit who now lives in the States, the 40-year-old star earned tremendous acclaim — but not an Oscar nomination — playing Martin Luther King in “Selma” (2014).
The actor, friendly and engaged, talked about his new film and the Academy’s surprising snub.
Question: Is this story more familiar to British audiences than Americans?
Answer: It’s not one that I knew. As far as I can tell, only British people of a certain age are aware of it, i.e. people who were at a certain level of awareness in the 1940s. Guy Hibbert, who wrote the script, his mother is very much aware of the story, having been of age when the events were taking place. But from a historical point of view, it is not something that is taught in schools. It is a patch of British history that is not well known. It’s been largely buried; as a result, when people see the film, they are mostly shocked and amazed they didn’t know the story.
Q: Why isn’t it better known?
A: The story typifies a period in history where the British government’s behavior was fairly deplorable, in my opinion, in relation to treating Ruth and Seretse as collateral damage. It was a perpetuation of prejudice that was basically masked under the guise of what was politically expedient for them to do. A lot of it was veiled racism.
Q: What was it like filming in Botswana?
A: It was an incredibly powerful element of the film that we could shoot there because that’s where the events took place. We were surrounded by the people who are most directly affected by what happened. The work that transpired between Ruth and Seretse very much informed the legacy of that country and what that country is now. Not only that, but we got to shoot some of the scenes in exactly the place where some of those events took place. We found the house they lived in and refurbished it. The hospital where you see Rosamund giving birth is the actual hospital where Seretse was born.
Q: You and Rosamund have great chemistry. Was that instantly there?
A: It’s something you can never predict. It’s something you can’t cultivate artificially. I always knew that I liked her a lot as an actress. I worked with her on “Jack Reacher,” and one of the reasons I was a big advocate for her to be Ruth is I’ve found her to be a very enigmatic actress. She’s someone whose performance in any given film I can’t predict. Considering how quickly these two fell in love, why this prince met this lady and fell so hard, so quickly — she evokes on screen how that could happen.
Q: They do fall so fast in the film. Is that something you’ve ever experienced?
A: I can’t attest to falling in love at first sight. One of the unique elements of their story is that it did happen, and that’s probably why the story happened at all. If they had allowed their intellect to take over, and I say this as an outsider looking in, you can see why in so many ways it was always going to be a bad idea that these two people live together. Forget the inherent racism they may find in the U.K. This is a prince meant to be going back home to marry someone from his country. The speed at which they fall in love is partly due to them not stopping and thinking.
Q: They faced such great obstacles and showed such courage. As an actor, do you think, “Yes, that’s what I would do in this situation?”
A: Anyone looking at the story, you can’t say, “I know exactly how I would react.” The circumstances are so extraordinary. You fall in love and envision obstacles such as “How do we pay the mortgage?” But when you have the sheer force and weight of an entire nation against you? I can’t fully say I would know how I’d react, but I’d like to think I’d be as brave and courageous as they were. As an actor, you basically place yourself in their head space, pondering who they were, how they might react. Thankfully there are great books, and there was a lot of press coverage, so you get a sense of how they felt, but I don’t care who you are: The courage these two people showed facing those obstacles is so admirable. I’m in an interracial marriage, and I haven’t faced anything like they did.
Q: Is your marriage one reason this story resonated with you?
A: Less so specifically because I’m in an interracial marriage. I just felt so fortunate to be living in a different time in history. My marriage isn’t either illegal or has to face that kind of opposition. I’m not naive to the fact that there are still sizable factions that find interracial marriage problematic, but certainly I’ve never experienced anything the likes of what they did.
Q: The film is directed Amma Asante, and you’ve made several films with female directors. Is that intentional?
A: It’s very intentional. I’m a producer on “A United Kingdom,” and I was instrumental in Amma being on the film. I was very keen on Ava DuVernay directing “Selma.” I recently produced “Five Nights in Maine” and the reason I wanted to do that film is I was very excited by Maris Curran. It is a conscious choice I’ve made. I find it disturbing how marginalized women are in the director’s chair. We as an audience are being malnourished by not seeing more stories from women directors. Women have a different point of view and it’s just as valid and even more needed.
Q: Your lack of an Oscar nomination for “Selma” helped spur the “Oscars So White” movement. What’s your take on this year’s nominees, who are more diverse?
A: I was encouraged by the fact that we didn’t only have nominees in the acting field, but with editors, cinematographers and producers as well. That to me is an encouraging sign. The more integrated people of color are in this industry, generally this whole conversation around race, diversity and inclusivity (will fade), because it will just become more normalized. As we’ve just discussed, there remains a deplorable lack of female directors being represented. I don’t buy the excuse or the notion that they are just not out there. If anything, I would like to think I am proof of the fact they are there and they are doing great work and they should be allowed to do great work.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8849. Twitter.com/randy_cordova.
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