The True Story Behind 'A United Kingdom' Deserves Your Attention, According To Star David Oyelowo
When it comes to understanding the history of interracial relationships in the U.S. many people know the Loving vs. Virginia case, in which Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested for violating the state’s law of miscegenation, and little else. The case was a turning point for interracial romance, but few people know about the other interracial marriage case that had a major effect on the world's views of race and love: that between London native Ruth Williams and Botswana King Seretse Khama. Their controversial relationship caused a massive international stir, which, earlier this year, was depicted in the drama film A United Kingdom, out on DVD now. The movie's release brought the little-known story to the masses, giving it attention that star David Oyelowo, who played Seretse, tells Bustle he believes it deserves.
"In many ways, it's a much bigger story than Loving," Oyelowo says, speaking with me in early June at a Beverly Hills hotel. "You have a prince, the heir to the throne of a nation, who marries this commoner who is a White woman. Then you have three countries the United Kingdom, Botswana and South Africa just getting out of the second World War and beginning of Cold War, where resources are being held if there wasn't an annulment of this marriage... Who would have thought that their relationship would be put into all of that international, governmental and cultural pressure?"
A United Kingdom depicts the romance between Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a clerk from Blackheath, London, and Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), a law student and soon-to-be Botswanan King, in 1947. The two encounter substantial resistance from the government due to both the UK's and Botswana's stances on miscegenation, and when the news of their union reaches Seretse's country, whose National party embraces apartheid law, British authorities move to forbid and undermine the marriage.
"Most people would falter under the weight of this kind of pressure, but these two didn't," Oyelowo says of his film's lead characters. "It’s a reminder of how love — it sounds simplistic — gave vigilance for them to overcome the pressure."
That pressure was hard on the real-life couple, who ended up settling in Serowe. Ruth was rejected by the White colonial community, and struggled to establish herself among the African women, while Seretse faced criticism from his people because they believed that Ruth represented their oppressors and that her being their queen would be equivalent to them losing their culture. In addition, "The UK countries... needed resources like uranium for war and they believed this marriage would cause conflict for what they needed at the time," explains Oyelowo.
The South African Prime Minister, Dr. Daniel Malan, was particularly enraged by the union. He believed that Ruth and Seretse's marriage would make his people think that they could all intermarry, so he ordered his High Commissioner in London to contact the government, asking them to get Seretse and Ruth out of Bechuanaland, and threatening them if they didn't. Eventually, Seretse was tricked into returning to the UK and then banished from Bechuanaland for five years by the government. In 1951, he was finally allowed to go back to his homeland for a limited amount of time for the birth of his child, and by 1956, Seretse and Ruth, along with their two children, were finally allowed to go back to Botswana together.
It's hard to understand why the clearly powerful true tale behind A United Kingdom isn't better known, and even the movie's star is baffled by how few people know of Seretse and Ruth's struggles. "I didn't know about this story until I read about the book... As a result of being a colony, the history of this marriage was kind of buried, as unfortunately can be the case with one country ruling over another for a long period of time," Oyelowo says. "[The story] not being heard of and having such impact on the strength of the country of Botswana now, was definitely what motivated me to get the film made."
A United Kingdom not only gives interracial marriage a needed focus, but portrays Africans in a different light than they usually are in Hollywood productions by showing them as three-dimensional characters. For Oyelowo it was important to see a change in the typical on-screen African narrative. "As a person of African descent, I've rarely seen films that show the depths, the complexity and beauty of us [Africans]," he says. "Especially, when it comes to our leaders. When you see movies about African countries it's all corruption, genocide and all negative stuff. But, when I saw this script and it was a love story that brought all of the Botswana people together, I knew this was the movie that would show the other side."
"To see an epic love story that has an African prince, an Africa leader and African people that ends in a success story, that for me is something that has to be seen," the actor continues. He's right; A United Kingdom is a powerful, necessary depiction of how love can triumph over even the greatest adversities.