British-born BAFTA Award-winning writer/director Amma Asante’s latest film, ‘A United Kingdom’, is an extraordinary true story about a remarkable young couple who meet, fall in love and resolve to marry – even though their decision puts them at the centre of a raging international controversy.
Seretse Khama, a brilliant young African law student, met Ruth Williams, a young White London office worker from a modest English working-class family, at a Missionary Society dance in London in 1947. They both liked jazz. They shared a sense of humour. It was love at first sight. He proposed to her a few weeks later, and she immediately agreed.
But it wasn’t that easy. Seretse was an African prince, studying law to prepare for his responsibilities as king of the Bangwato nation in his native Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana). And bringing home a White wife, who would become his queen, flew in the face of his people’s traditions. Even his beloved uncle, Tshekedi, who had been acting as regent since Seretse’s father died, was firmly against the idea.
The couple’s marriage plans caused disruption in Ruth’s family too. Following her experiences in the War, Ruth was in the vanguard of women who felt liberated to seek a larger role in the world. It set her in conflict with her father, who disapproved of the interracial match; he threatened to throw her out of his house.
Their problems became even more complicated. The British government (via the Bishop of London) moved to prevent the couple getting married in church. They went to a registry office instead, but the government continued to oppose them, fearful of the destabilising effect their marriage might have in the colonies of its Empire. In South Africa, which shared a border with Bechuanaland and where the infamous apartheid racial segregation laws were about to be introduced, the reaction was furious; its government threatened to withhold access to its gold and uranium from Britain.
Even when the couple reached Bechuanaland, the reception was chilly. Tshekedi could not disguise his displeasure with Seretse, and Ruth was received with cool hostility by his wife and Seretse’s sister, Naledi.
Negotiations continued about whether Seretse was fit to be king. The couple endured forced separations; ironically, at one point, Seretse was alone in London, arguing his case with the British government, while Ruth was alone in Bechuanaland.
But the couple never faltered in their resolve to live as man and wife in a country of their choosing. And gradually Ruth’s steadfast support of Seretse, in the face of overwhelming opposition to his rule, and her persistent efforts to engage with her new community, won over the Bangwato, while Seretse’s principled stand earned him the respect of both the British and his own people – including his uncle.
Over the years, and with Ruth by his side, Seretse transformed his nation, leading it from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of its more prosperous, from being a monarchy to a democracy. In 1966, Bechuanaland finally achieved independence as the Republic of Botswana.
By believing in the power of their love, Ruth and Seretse transformed their nation, paved the road to change in modern Africa and inspired the world.
‘A UNITED KINGDOM’ premieres at the 60th British Film Institute (BFI) London Film Festival, which runs from Wednesday 5 to Sunday 16 October 2016, and will be in UK cinemas on 25 November.