Much ado about nothing. Shakespeare’s play title is a fitting description for this period drama about an interracial couple: a white female office worker from London and the heir to the throne of British Bechuanaland (modern Botswana). There is a tendency to portray diversity on the silver screen, in response to discouraging figure. Just 5.3% of the film production workforce, 3.4% of the film distribution workforce and 4.5% of the film exhibition workforce were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in 2012, according to data published by the BFI. What’s worse, the portrayal of these groups is often inaccurate and clichéd. A United Kingdom is not a milestone for the representation of Blacks in British cinema. Instead, it simply repackages British Imperialism with a black proxy.
The film is a clear example of the fake nostalgia conveyred period dramas – British filmmaker Ken Loach explains this concept very well here. The film is based on a true story: Seretse (David Oyelowo) and Ruth (Rosamund Pike) first met in a jazz club in London in 1947, in which black and white people apparently danced in harmony – Seretse was studying in the British capital. Jazz had became very popular in London due to an earlier influx of Caribbean jazz musicians in 1930s. Still, though, in the 1940s, in particular in London, signs were known to appear in the windows of bed and breakfasts and lodging houses reading ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’. Black workers arriving in Britain in the 1940s very often faced discrimination and ‘colour bars’ preventing them from entering pubs and clubs. All of this is featured in the movie.
The director Amma Asante said during the London Film Festival last month: “it was very important that there is a balance between romance and political background”. Nonetheless, the feeling of love and romance prevails over the political charge. The couple ignored the opposition of friends and family and married in a very small wedding ceremony. Ruth followed her heart and thought she would be welcomed by her husband’s relatives in Africa. When the set moves to the tropics, the colour-saturated heat of Botswana is emphasised in the cinematography and in design. The yellow and red colours warm the couple’s nest, indicating that love conquers everything. In reality, though, she would spend months alone in Africa, even during her pregnancy, because Seretse Khama was detained in Britain during an international diplomatic crisis that only ended in 1956.
Winston Churchill signed a document demandind that Seretse stays in Britain, but we never see Churchill in the film. Perhaps the fake nostalgia feeling prohibits Churchill to be depicted in a negative context. Instead, we see diplomats donning immaculate white linen suits somehow immune to dust, dirt and human perspiration. Tom Felton, who plays the district commissioner to Bechuanaland Rufus Lancaster, referring to his character and other British officials in the protectorade, explains that “those individuals are not villains at all”. British people are nice guys, even when they are exercising colonialism.
The most reactionary aspect of the movie is perhaps in the outcome, when the subliminal Imperialistic message surfaces. Seretse signs an agreement with the British authorities, giving him the right to lead his country in exchange for the right to explore diamond mining. That’s how Seretse became the Prime Minister of Botswana. In other words, black leadership is only possible if the government chief is willing surrender to British interests. This is not the role model for black leadership, diversity and equal rights that African people need to see.
On the positive side, at least A United Kingdom tells a story previously untold in cinema and looks into the little-known history of Botswana, an achievement per se. Hopefully it will generate renewed interest in themes, from a less romanticised and colonial gaze.
The film is out in the UK on November 25th; get ready to be inundated with heavy publicity for the next few weeks.
You can watch the colourful film trailer right here: