Amma Asante: ‘The issue of mixed relationships still isn’t comfortable for a lot of people’

The prejudices of the 1940s British establishment are laid bare in intercontinental historical romance A United Kingdom. Director Amma Asante discusses working with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike to bring this true story to the screen.

Wendy Ide

A United Kingdom (2016): Amma Asante on set

A United Kingdom (2016): Amma Asante on set

In 1947, in a London struggling to pull itself up by the bootstraps after the Second World War, a young woman met a man at a dance. They fell in love and decided that the one sure thing in those uncertain times was the fact that they wanted to marry and spend their lives together.

But the “happily ever after” was a little more complicated. Not only was she white and he black, she was Ruth Williams, a clerk from Blackheath, and he was Seretse Khama, the heir to the throne of what was then known as Bechuanaland (later Botswana). It was a union opposed by seemingly everyone. There was her conservative family and his formidable uncle and guardian, the people of his tribe and the British government. Acting to appease South Africa, they enforced exile on Seretse resulting in his separation from his wife and country.

It’s with this extraordinary love story that Amma Asante follows the success of Belle (2013), with David Oyelowo magnetic in the role of Seretse and Rosamund Pike combining an endearingly gauche awkwardness with a quiet inner fortitude as Ruth. Shot in the UK and Botswana, A United Kingdom is a handsomely mounted production that deftly juggles both the intimacy of the romance and its seismic historical implications.

A United Kingdom (2016)

A United Kingdom (2016)

How much did you know of the story before you got involved in the project?

I actually wasn’t aware of it at all in any shape or form. Essentially what happened was that David Oyelowo, Rick McCallum, the producer, and [writer] Guy Hibbert were on board with the project long ago. David read the book, Colour Bar, by Susan Williams, which is just a brilliant, brilliant piece of work. About a year-and-a-half ago, David called me up and said: “Look, I have this passion project. I believe that now is the time to make it because I’ve got a gap in my schedule – it’s right after Selma (2014) – but we need to find the right director.”

So he sent me a photo essay and I was completely stunned, mainly because I felt slightly foolish not knowing about them. I read the script, and then when I read the book I was floored by the political side of it. I was floored by the position with the UK government. I became really obsessed with how one could tell a story, a love story, but have all of these political elements come through the prism of this, and how to tell a love story where the couple are apart for a large chunk of the film.

A United Kingdom (2016)

A United Kingdom (2016)

So once you came on board, was the funding fully in place or did it take a while to put together?

Pathé were on board throughout development and were always going to fund the film, but we did need the BBC and the BFI. They came on board after I joined. We always knew it was going to be ambitious and I really think our ability to achieve that ambition was down to Rick McCallum. He is such an interesting character. He was one of the producers on Star Wars (1977), so has worked on ambitious projects before. But he loves the rawness of an independent film. He always wanted to find a way to allow the vision to be achieved.

You shot in the UK and in Botswana. It must be a significant story for the crew from Botswana. Did they have any input that they brought to you?

For the most part, it was very clear that Seretse was a hero for them, along with the love and respect that they had for Ruth. So much so that when I first started going over there to do my research, it was very hard to find out how Ruth might have been received originally. I’m pretty sure I knew because of my African roots. My uncle is a chief in Ghana and I know my mum well enough to know that a reaction to a white queen coming over to preside over their nation was not going to be an easy one, so I was digging to uncover what those reactions were like in order to ensure that Ruth had her arc.

It’s not a very flattering portrait of the British establishment and the racist, sexist and classist forces at work. Do you feel that the story has contemporary resonance?

Sometimes, with people of colour, we can be at the end of racist actions, even though the people that are performing those actions aren’t necessarily racist. What I mean is, I don’t believe Attlee cared whether the couple went back to Africa or not, except for the fact that South Africa was placing this pressure on him which was going to have a massive impact on the British people just two years after the end of the Second World War.

Also, the issue of mixed relationships isn’t quite as comfortable for a lot of people today as we might think it is. We can look back and gasp at certain things that happen in the film, but anyone in a mixed relationship now knows that it’s still not straightforward. So there’s clearly contemporary resonance there, and then in terms of identity, freedom, migration and immigration, they all become part of the story that I think projects onto contemporary times.

Since the couple are forced apart for so much of the story, Ruth’s arc and her growth becomes central to the film.

It is. What I never, ever wanted was for anybody to think that she was “exoticising” Seretse in some way and that the relationship wasn’t anything other than a real attraction between two people. There had to be an arc for this woman, and I thought wouldn’t it be great for us to flip the script in a way, in terms of what we see in films, and create a story where it’s the white person who’s the “other”. It’s the white person who’s trying to belong. She’s not the white saviour who sees Africa through her eyes, but a woman who sees parallels between the British women who were left alone during the war and the African women in the villages: often their husbands had to go and work in southern African mines. So they were the ones who did the building; they did so much of what might be considered in other cultures as men’s work. I thought she would have seen some parallels with her life and theirs.

A United Kingdom (2016): David Oyelowo and Amma Asante on set

A United Kingdom (2016): David Oyelowo and Amma Asante on set

Equally important is the moment of instant attraction, which is so palpable and believable. That’s a difficult thing to pull off, but it really does feel completely authentic between them.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo obviously understood it and got it. It was interesting, because I had a similar moment with my husband. I was sitting in a canteen waiting to meet him in order to do some research on a project and suddenly saw him across the room and had a moment very much like Ruth and Seretse. And you think you’re mad. Working out whether it’s really possible to credibly convey something similar on screen was tough.

What did it mean for you and for the film to be selected as the opener for the London Film Festival?

It was big. When A Way of Life (2004) had its world premiere there, I was filled with pride, obviously, but I was also filled with a lot of anxiety because it was revealing this child to my hometown audience. It became even worse when I won the festival’s New Talent Award. I suddenly thought, how am I going to fulfil the promise of what an award like this expects in return? I’m female, I’m black and I just didn’t feel I had any examples to really hang my hook on. It just seemed like a really audacious daydream in many ways.

And then, 12 years later, to be invited back as the opening film really feels like a full circle moment. To have my hometown recognise me as a filmmaker that they would have headline the opening of their film festival is such a massive deal. It makes me feel like I am now the example that I was looking for 12 years ago. And the idea that there will be youngsters coming through today who might have ambitions in film, who will never think of this as anything odd or strange in the way that I did, because it will just seem normal to them, which is as it should be.

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