- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2017

The romance of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams seemed doomed from the start. Williams was the daughter of working-class London parents, and Khama was in England to complete his education before returning to his native Botswana to rule over his people — under the protectorate of the British Crown.

It was a clash of races, castes, cultures and the wishes of both of their respective peoples. Geopolitics quite genuinely hinged on their union. All of this in the late 1940s, with the world still recovering from the terror of the Second World War.

“The only interaction that the Botswana people had with the British was that they were colonizers,” said Amma Asante, the director of the new film “A United Kingdom” about the marriage. “And then to bring someone from that country would have been very, very difficult for them to handle.”

The young couple at the center of the storm are played in the film by David Oyelowo (“Selma,” “Interstellar”) and Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl,” “Jack Reacher”). Ms. Asante, whose parents emigrated to the U.K. from Ghana, felt a natural affinity for the subject matter given her own personal history.

“I’m a girl from South London, and [Williams was] a girl from South London,” Ms. Asante said, adding that revisiting the couple’s haunts in both England and Africa helped her get a great respect for their struggle.



“The couple did stand up to intense pressure that came from politics, government, three different countries, family [on] two different continents,” she said. “It would have been easy for the couple to say ‘this is too hard.’ But neither of them did that.”

Ms. Asante, whose previous directorial efforts include “Belle” and “A Way of Life,” took her crew to the country in the far south of Africa to film at the couple’s home. Unlike neighboring South Africa, Botswana has a barely fledgling film industry, but Ms. Asante and her producers refused to that let that get in the way of location work.

“We felt very strongly that we ‘have the DNA’ of Botswana running through the film,” she said.

That local flavor included hiring local extras — many of whom had never seen a film before — as well as having a young aspiring filmmaker “shadow” Ms. Asante “to be sure there was some kind of ongoing filmmaking left behind.”

One aspect of the location work completely outside her control was Africa’s oppressive heat.

“As a filmmaker I was used to filming in very very cold weather,” Ms. Asante said of production in and near her native England. “But it was an unknown process for me how to work in [stifling] heat.

“Because the land is so flat and arid and dry, there are few places to take shade, and even when you’re in a tent, it’s still warm. So that was difficult.”

Ms. Asante heaped much praise on Mr. Oyelowo, who, like his director, has African heritage, and who effortlessly disappears into whatever role he plays, such as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.”

“He was going off to do some Broadway theater after shooing ‘A United Kingdom’ with us, and then he said, ‘I’m going to have a break, and I’m looking forward to just being myself,’” she said of her chameleonlike star, who also served as a producer on the new film.

Ms. Asante, who describes herself as an incurable optimist, would like to see more women behind the camera, and she believes that telling “honest” stories is key for filmmakers of any gender. Furthermore, it is all but impossible for external politics not to influence a director’s work.

“This is a political story beginning to end just by virtue of their having picked partners of different colors,” she said of “A United Kingdom.” “That in itself will be seen by other people as a political statement, even if the couple doesn’t see it that way. They are bing forced to deal with the politics projected onto them even if it’s not the natural way that they look at their relationship.”

“And of course there is a sense that you feel you can feel safest around what you know,” she said. “Whether that’s natural to human beings, I don’t know. But I know it’s common, and I know that a positive way forward is to challenge that.”

“A United Kingdom” opens Friday in the District.

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