It’s rare you find a film that truly breaks the mold of all others in its genre. “A United Kingdom” may have done just that.
The film follows the true story of — Seretse Khama, played by David Oyelowo, Prince of Botswana. The young prince defies the prejudice of his time by marrying outside of his race as a result, both himself and his wife Ruth, played by Rosamund Pike, are faced with political backlash.
The film steers away from the problematic narrative that many films surrounding race and interracial relationships continuously perpetuate, that is, painting black characters as props or black women as bitter. Instead, it showcases black characters in a way that they should have always been shown, in a way that their white counterparts are typically depicted, versatile, and multidimensional. It is refreshing and exciting to see a hollywood movie affording non-stereotypical parts to black actors, and even better to get a break from the false narratives shown for black women and men without being type-casted.
Last Friday, I caught up with director Amma Asante and actor David Oyelowo for lunch following the screening of their latest film, A United Kingdom. Inside of a delicately beautiful rococo style room at the Crosby Street Hotel in Soho, Manhattan, myself and a room full of ambitious black women journalists talked about everything with the two- from the social implications of the film, the filmmakers, and the journey to create it. Catch our chat below:
The beginning stages:
Amma: David and I worked together, as David was saying around 18 years ago on a tv series I had written and was producing. It was a TV series for BBC. As he said, he had just met Jessica. The series in itself was, I think, pretty groundbreaking in the U.K, it had 36 characters, all of color. David had not long left drama school and was one of the leading characters that we casted. I stayed in touch with all of the people that I have worked on with that show, and many have gone on to make great names for themselves, I’m happy to say. Including, David Harewood and many other people. David and I would see each other from time to time, on airplanes, crisscrossing sometime in the US sometimes in London and I think there came a point when timing was essential and perfect. David had received great acclaim from Selma. Pike, who we didn’t know had been casted at the time had just finished Gone Girl and David picked up the phone and said, look I read this book many years ago, I’ve held onto it for this all this time, I knew that I would have to wait until the right time, I think that it is now and I think that you’re the right director, and I need you (laughs.) Because, I’m a lone black voice on this project and I need someone in this with me who’s going to be able to understand how this project needs to be navigated. It was a wonderful idea and it was a good script. If I’m honest, David sent me many photographs of the couple and that was what really peaked my interest in the beginning, because like David, I was used to flicking through the family album and seeing images of my father in the late 50’s early 60’s dressed like Seretse, walking through the streets of London as an educated man of African dignity and here was my opportunity possibly to tell a story of the two continents that were involved in raising me, Europe and Africa. And then reading Susan Williams book, which I have to say is just a masterpiece. It’s a brilliant, brilliant piece of work that explains concepts that in some way are unexplainable because actually you’re dealing with human nature as opposed to the rules of law. You know, people can promise one thing and then just decide they’ve changed their mind. Even for those of us who have often been on the wrong side of equality, you’re shocked when you read the book and ask how is this possible. So, I spoke to you yesterday about being able to navigate the story in a way that will reflect me a as a filmmaker as well. And so, intersectionality had to come into it, we had to make sure that we were going to create a story that also had a voice for black females. Particularly when you’re talking about a movie where it’s a white woman going to Africa to become a queen of black women. So there was work to be done but we all did the work, then it was a question of who are we going to cast as Ruth more than who we were going to cast as Seretse. I think we’re in a place where finally there has been allowed some amazing actors of color who are now, demanding if you like, their own box office and films are now being produced because their names are attached to it, and David is one of them and that in itself meant that David was always going to play Seretse Khama and we pieced it together after that.
Can I just be really honest with you. (Motions to all of the women journalist.) You were the person I had to convince. Every single woman of color at this table, you were the people I had to convince, I was the person I had to convince, because if I didn’t believe her no one else would believe her. And I knew that if I could convince myself and you that this love could be real, and that somebody could give up – you know it wasn’t a lot what she gave up, but it was what she knew. And giving up what you know is difficult and giving up what you know for love is a pipe dream for some of us. We all hope that we will experience that love that, that we would do absolutely anything for, but it really rarely happens and for me what was easy for me was to find admiration. Particularly, when David and I kept going back and forth about how to not create a white savior, we can not create a white savior, she can not be misconstrued. The perception cannot be put out there in any way shape or form deliberately or mistakenly that this is a white savior. So to find a way to channel her story so that it was actually the black females who had the power, they had to accept her. She needed them, she was the outsider,, she was the one who needed to belong, she needed their blessing, was very important.
One thing that I liked about this film is that, usually Hollywood films generalize the whole continent of Africa. Unlike most films, you made sure not to generalize African culture into one. You clearly distinguished the culture of Botswana.
David: It’s a great point you make and it’s something I’m very sensitive to as a Nigerian and Ghanaian. We use this term Africa which is understandable because America is a big place, but it has states instead of countries. Africa is a massive place that has countries and if you’ve never been there you won’t necessarily understand the nuance of that but they are very, very different places. Batswana shares a border with South Africa, but the two couldn’t be any more different and that’s partly because of the legacy of Sereste and Ruth, in terms of race relations. Even geographically, the topography of the place is so different and that again to not generalize that, that is what I often feel happens when African stories are told from an outside perspective. Sometimes you will hear “that person is too light” from a certain part of Africa, so it’s the same things both ways. An outsider perspective is a very biased, one dimensional perspective which is why again like I said earlier, it is so important who gets to tell the stories because no one treats your house like you do, if you’re a self-respecting person anyway. If you treat yourself well then other people will.
Amma: I was fascinated and loved the fact that Botswana was so different from Ghana which was the African culture that I knew the most. It’s also completely different from South Africa which is right next door. So I was really interested in it’s personality and the architecture of the landscape. The first thing I thought when I said to David, yeah let’s do this was the visual aspect. I started to imagine what it looked like visually, I started to imagine the women in all these African prints that I was so used to seeing my mother in. I imagined incorporating a church scene where all the women are dressed up in the big head wraps like they are in Nigeria or Ghana. Seeing what I was used to seeing and then seeing all of the color from those prints and then as I started to do my research in Botswana I started to realize I wasn’t really seeing any of those prints, the colors weren’t really there. And then I started talking to women, and talking to men and one of the Batswana historians said “We’re very humble in that way, we don’t like color, we don’t want to stand out in that way we want to blend in with nature and we like our colors to be very neutral and natural.” And I was like “What am I going to do about my mood bored (chuckles) because it’s so different.” Even with the landscape there were certain other areas I was more reluctant to let go of because of my vision. But it was very important, the one thing that was always there first and foremost was that we were never going to honor a film over the people. We were never going to somehow give up our responsibility to the people or the cultures, because there are many cultures in Botswana for a film. We can’t do everything in 110 minutes, when you’re in two continents, two countries, including a love story, and incorporating politics – but you can do what you can. And again, it’s the trying, having the intention in the right place and at least trying to meet that responsibility. So it was in all of those things, in understanding the way that people communicate for instance we couldn’t just go and film anywhere we wanted to. It might be obvious that we had to go and speak to the government about being allowed to film there. But it wasn’t just about speaking to the government, every level of the community and society we had to ask permission. So when we went to a village we had to go to the chief, we couldn’t address the chief ourselves, we the producers and the director would sit down in the back row we would have nominated representatives who spoke Setswana in the front row. I had to be covered in a particular way. I wouldn’t say it was misogynist in any way I would just say it’s respectful. You couldn’t wear sunglasses if you were approaching the chief because he had to be able to look into your soul and look in your eyes. So there were levels of respect that were different from Ghana but the same. I remember one of the chiefs explaining to us “Look I have to explain to my community when they say why are these people roaming around here and filming in our village I have to be able to explain who you are, what you are here for, and I have to explain that you’re intentions were good. Because we don’t run around catching our children here they run free and we have to know they’re safe with you. So when you approach that way from the get go, you know you have to come in with a particular level of respect and a particular responsibility towards the community, which you know coming from Ghana that was easy for me, that wasn’t difficult. Of Course coming from Ghana, I know that Africa is a continent and I know that there are countries right next door that are completely different so that was easy and it was a pleasure. It was a pleasure being able to show a part of Africa that many people haven’t seen before. That was nothing more than a joy.
On filmmakers perspectives translating through the screen:
Amma: I’ve talked about it yesterday as well, the perspective that you consistently see is the perspective that becomes natural and feels natural to the people that are creating it all the time, so when you start to talk about something else, it’s not that they’re (filmmakers who typecast) are bad people, it’s that until you show it to them and you express it to them, it doesn’t exist. That facet and those nuances that you talk about don’t exist until once they’re there, good people get it and acknowledge it when it’s there. Also to know that films can be created about Seretse Khama that you can enjoy and David’s wife’s mother can enjoy at the same time. But this idea that just because you focus on the specific, you can’t also involve the universal is crazy and I was taught along time ago by a great producer who was very culturally sensitive, was that when you try to be universal you just get one kind of wishy-washy product. But when you focus on something culturally specific, most people identify in some way or other. There is a community wider than the one we belong to that it will resonate with and I find that fascinating.
On projects outside of film:
David: Something that I am very passionate about is female empowerment. I have a scholarship in Nigeria to educate girls who have been affected by Boko Haram. That, obviously the intent with that group is to divest women of education and I think that there is a very insidious reason for that, it is because women are a real force when they are allowed to be all that they should be and are. That intersects with what I’m trying to do with film behind the scenes as well in terms of female voices in film, female representation on film. I have a real problem with the objectification of women in film I think as a man who is a father to three sons I know how hard it is to raise sons to truly respect women, when the images they’re subjected to through advertisement and film and t.v is constantly minimizing that which a women is. And for my daughter, that is anathema to me that a man somewhere is going to be cajoled by the media into thinking of her in that way. So you know, sexual slavery is another thing that really hurts me to the core of my being, so I work with Bono’s foundation as well-One foundation. In terms of education and the empowerment of women those are things that really motivate me and thankfully it intersects with my life, as a father, as a son, as a husband. Generally we live in time where modern day slavery is a way bigger problem than anyone is acknowledging and so those are the things that motivate me in every facet of my life.
Release date: February 10, 2017