Love conquers all

A United Kingdom

Rated PG

This is a timely, true tale of victory over tremendous opposition and adversity, for it shows us – on one hand – how far we have come in the fight against racism while at the same time pricking our consciences, pushing us to ask how much has really changed beneath the surface.

The year is 1947 and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the kingship of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana), is finishing his law studies in London, preparing to go home and take up the leadership that has been held in trust for him by his uncle. Then he meets a girl and falls in love – which would be simple if it weren’t for the fact that the girl is white, and English.

It was more than 15 years before Martin Luther King, Jr spoke of the hope that one day his children would live in a nation where they would “not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. Such challenges were all too familiar in post-war Britain.

Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) is willing to stand by Seretse’s side even though she knows there will be consequences. But neither of them can fathom how far-reaching these will be. Ruth’s father throws her out of home, the church (after government pressure) will not marry them and Seretse’s uncle demands he leave her immediately. And worse is to follow.

In one sense it’s hard to grasp how a marriage could create a political crisis in Britain and send shockwaves all the way to Africa, but this is what Seretse and Ruth faced. Bechuanaland was a British protectorate and the appeasement of neighbouring South Africa was an important British policy – mainly because of trade and self-interest, but also with a fair dollop of racist superiority.

So as apartheid was being written into law in South Africa, the idea of a mixed marriage at the highest level in Bechuanaland was unthinkable as well as distasteful.

The British – represented by the smarmy, condescending Sir Alistair Canning (Tom Davenport) – fight to prevent the marriage and then, once Ruth and Seretse return to Africa, they work with Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi to have him removed as chief.

Tshekedi does not support this from any enthusiasm for Britain’s highly prejudiced policies. His reason is Britain in reverse: he’s against the white woman. The locals have the expectation that their future queen will be chosen from among their own people, so Ruth isn’t wanted – and if she’s with Seretse, neither is he.

If Seretse Khama had not been the man he was, that may have been the end of it. But he loved his country with a passion, wanted to serve his people and, like Dr King, had a dream for his nation: that it could be a place of equality and justice where there was no place for prejudice on the basis of race. It’s a truth we need to hear as much today as then, for although the racism in our society may not be as overt we would be foolish to think it no longer existed.

How Ruth and Seretse fought (with care) the British, the South Africans and won over their own people is an extraordinary story. What’s even more extraordinary is that, to the modern viewer, their tale will be completely unknown.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are entirely convincing as a couple who love each other enough to take tremendous risks to be together, stare down bigotry and political injustice and forge a future for themselves and Bechuanaland.

The world the filmmakers have created around them can be a little two-dimensional at times, but I guess nuance is hard to create is what is essentially – for want of a better way of putting it – and black and white issue.

However, the love and persistence that overcame almost insurmountable obstacles make for a story that’s well worth telling, and the commitment and care in the performances (plus the glorious Botswanan locations) make for an uplifting film.

You’ll be glad that you’ve seen it.