Marvel’s Black Panther has broken box office records, hanging onto the top spot for five straight weeks after its release. While it had a built-in pedigree with its place in the Marvel Universe, along with Chadwick Boseman’s impressive turn in Captain America: Civil War, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s film went far outside the normal lane for superhero movies to deal with social justice and posit what Africa could have developed into without the scourge of colonialism and the slave trade. Two years ago, more modest film dealt with that colonialism and its base in racism. As a companion piece to Black Panther, check out 2016’s A United Kingdom, now available through HBO.
The movie is based on the book “Colour Bar” by Susan Williams, which tells the true story of King Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (later Botswana) and his English wife Ruth Williams, who was a clerk at Lloyd’s of London when they met in 1947. Julius Nyerere, a teacher at that time who later became President of Tanzania, called their romance “one of the great love stories of the world,” though the interracial couple had to overcome many obstacles before achieving a happy ending.
Director Amma Asante did Belle in 2013, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the mixed-race daughter of an English admiral being raised in 18th Century Georgian England. That film was also based on a true story, and sumptuously recreated the period while dealing with an all-too-contemporary problem. She applies the same vision to recreate drab-gray post-WWII England and sun-drenched Africa. It helps that she filmed much of the movie on location in Botswana. The screenplay by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is most faithful in how it presents the love story. With Seretse’s interactions with the British government, Hibbert has taken understandable liberties to present the basic details of an 18-year struggle within 111 minutes.
In A United Kingdom, Ruth (Rosamund Pike) accompanies her sister to a dance organized by the Missionary Society. There she meets Seretse (David Oyelowo), who’s studying law in London at the time. They bond over a love of jazz music – their favorite group was the Ink Spots – and their relationship develops from there. Seretse tells Ruth his story, how he is the grandson of Khama III, the first ruler of Bechuanaland. His grandfather had appealed to Queen Victoria to make the nation a British protectorate to counter the colonialism of South Africa and Rhodesia. Bechuanaland was one of the poorest countries in the world at that time, with only a hundred people holding the equivalency of a high school diploma, and less than a handful with a college education (including Seretse). His elderly father passed away when he was four, and his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) both raised Seretse and served as regent. Now his schooling is finished and he must return to take up his duties as king, but he can’t imagine his life without Ruth. He proposes to her on the Embankment near Parliament.
Ruth’s parents refuse to accept the engagement, but that’s just the start of their problems. Ruth is visited at her work by Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the King’s representative for Southern Africa, who explains in the most paternalistic way that she can’t marry Seretse. The Archbishop of Canterbury refuses to sanction a church wedding, and Tshekedi makes clear his refusal to accept Ruth. But the couple wed at a register’s office and then set out for Africa. More trials, including exile, lie in store for the couple.
Canning is a made-up character; in a sense, the name has been changed to protect the guilty. The real Seretse described the scene when he was sent into exile by the British government. He said the official who did it was “as unfeeling as if he was asking me to give up smoking, or surrender old school (examination) papers that I had accumulated while at Oxford. I doubt that any man has been asked to give up his birthright in such cold, calculating tones.”
Part of what led the British Government to act as it did was the mineral wealth of South Africa. President Malan was enacting apartheid at the same time as Ruth and Seretse’s marriage, but the Brits allowed it because in the wake of the war they needed the income that access to South Africa’s gold and diamonds brought them. It goes deeper than that, though. Pike’s Ruth mentions that in England at that time you could see signs outside pubs and restaurants that said: “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” The film does an excellent job showing the casual paternalism of the whites who felt their “civilized” history gave them the right to dictate to the native people while they ignored the indigenous culture. The movie also identifies how the British played factions against each other to weaken both sides.
Ultimately, Seretse overcame the British. When the newly-named Botswana gained its independence in 1964, Seretse became its first president. He was knighted by Queen Elixabeth, becoming a member of the Order of the British Empire. Thanks to the discovery of mineral deposits, Botswana prospered, guided through the careful stewardship of Seretse. The problems with graft and promotion of the unqualified that handicapped democracy in other post-colonial countries were avoided by Botswana. For her part, Ruth adapted to Africa and was accepted as the mother of the nation.
Seretse remained president until 1980 when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Ruth lived on in Botswana until she passed away in 2002, missing by only a few years their son becoming the fourth president of Botswana. While Seretse would have had the right to be angry at his treatment, he remained positive. “I myself,” he said on a 1967 visit to Malawi, “have never been very bitter at all. Bitterness does not pay. Certain things have happened to all of us in the past and it is for us to forget those and look to the future. It is not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our children and children’s children that we ourselves should put this world right.”