When An English Woman Captured The Heart Of The King Of Botswana
The idea for A United Kingdom first came into being in 2010, when actor David Oyelowo was working on the film 96 Minutes. Its producers, Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason, had bought the rights to Susan Williams’ s book Colour Bar, which detailed the remarkable story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams.
In 1947, Seretse Khama, the King of Botswana, met Ruth Williams, a London office worker. The attraction was immediate: she was captivated by his vision for a better world, he was struck by her willingness to embrace it.
Both felt liberated by the social upheaval that followed the war – Seretse sensed the opportunity for change as the Empire weakened, Ruth saw the possibility for a “bigger life” as women pushed for independence and equality.
They were a perfect match, yet their proposed marriage was challenged not only by their families but by the British and South African governments. The latter had recently introduced the policy of apartheid and found the notion of a biracial couple ruling a neighbouring country intolerable. South Africa threatened the British: either thwart the couple or be denied access to South African uranium (vital for the British nuclear program) and gold (vital to replenish reserves following the war) and face the risk of South Africa invading Botswana.
Despite the terrible pressures they faced, Seretse and Ruth never wavered – they fought for their love every step of the way, and in so doing changed their nation and inspired the world.
“I remember very clearly Justin approaching me on set with the book, and handing it to me,” says Oyelowo. “I was so arrested by the image of the cover photo of Seretse and Ruth, looking very glamorous and happy. I knew nothing of them. I had no idea he was an African prince.
“But I read the book and was just intoxicated by the power their love had over political establishments. Their love was such a potent thing. It wasn’t like Ruth had grown up in some political family and always had this conviction about racism. So it was very clear to me that their love was very pure and diamond-like; it was able to cut through all this prejudice they faced, having got married.
“So when I first came upon this story, I became obsessed with the idea of it becoming a film. I’m a proud African, and an avid excavator of African stories that could be told on film.”
The three men tried to get the film off the ground – “to be honest, with very little success,” as Oyelowo recalls. “When we first sent the script out to agents and it was clear I would be playing Seretse, people said no.”
But he told people he worked with and liked about Seretse and Ruth’s story. Two of these would be key in the story’s progress to film. Veteran producer Rick McCallum had produced a film with David in a significant role; Red Tails, about African-American pilots in World War II.
He recalls: “I have filmed all over Africa but I had never heard about this amazing part of Botswana’s history. I was enchanted by the story and thrilled that David had brought me the book and that I could be a part of making this film. He was so passionate about the project – and it was so apparent from the minute that George Lucas and I met him for Red Tails that he was going break out as an actor in a big way. I warned David that it would take some time – that he would have to be patient until he reached a higher profile but we all agreed from that moment that we would not, under any circumstances, make the film unless David played the part of Seretse. It was also extremely important for David that he wanted to play a major part in controlling the future of his own work by helping to produce the film as well. One of the big frustrations for David was finding stories that contextualise what it is to be black, told from a black protagonist’s point of view. We also all agreed that it was absolutely essential that we shoot the film in Botswana. There was a tremendous amount of pressure for us to make the film in South Africa (because of the infrastructure and tax breaks), but all of us were in agreement that the only place for us to make the film was where the events actually happened. The moment everything changed was when we had our first meeting with Cameron McCracken [London based MD of Pathe and Executive Producer of the film] – he committed immediately (having worked with David on Selma) and from that moment we were on our way, eventually joined by the BBC, the BFI and Ingenious.
Oyelowo continued to bring former collaborators on board including producer Brunson Green, with whom he had done The Help, and screenwriter Guy Hibbert with whom he had collaborated on two films: Blood and Oil, and Complicit. “Once we had Guy on board, we felt safe, we felt in good shape,” says McCallum, who admires Hibbert’s political savvy. “He got along extremely well with Susan Williams, they met a couple of times a week, and we arranged a trip to Botswana for him. He was already interested by the politics, but the moment he went to Botswana, that was it. He fell in love with the people and the country”
Two crucial roles in the production were still not filled, and once again Oyelowo’s connections were crucial: “I met Amma Asante when I did a TV series 20 years ago, Brothers and Sisters. That was one of my first jobs out of drama school. Then, in the middle of our search for a director, I saw her wonderful film, Belle. I talked to her about A United Kingdom and thankfully she responded to the material”.
Rick McCallum was ecstatic about Amma Asante coming on board: “She is a wonderful director and an extraordinary woman – every single frame of A United Kingdom bears the unique perspective of her own life and history. She is relentless in getting what she wants and does it with a passion and sense of humour that enthused every member of our Czech, English, South African and Botswana cast and crew.” Asante worked intensively with Hibbert on the script, bringing her own take on the politics, the love story and the voice of the characters.
Finally, Rosamund Pike joined the cast to play Ruth Williams. She and Oyelowo had worked together on Jack Reacher. “David sent me a book of photos of Ruth and Seretse, together with a script,” she recalls. “I scrolled through images of them. There was one of them sitting side by side, the two of them close up to each other. It was like someone had flicked on a switch. I felt tears streaming down my face. Something about them moved me so much.”
She then read the script: “It bore out everything I had hoped for.”
Says Oyelowo: “The story of Ruth and Seretse clearly had a real impact on Rosamund. She wrote me back this amazing e-mail: ‘I don’t know who they are, but they’ve touched me in a way I can’t explain. Tell me more.’ I did, and very quickly she said: ‘I want to do it.’”
After six long years, A United Kingdom was at last ready to go into production.
A significant factor in Asante’s decision to direct the movie was where its action takes place. “It’s set in Africa and London — the two places in the world that are most important to me. David’s passion was pivotal in convincing me to come on board, as was Rick’s tenacity and experience and his openness to my thoughts and ideas”.
Asante grew up in Streatham, south London, the child of Ghanaian immigrants; initially she and her parents lived in a one-room flat. Her parents started out in menial jobs, then moved on; her father who had qualified as an accountant was employed by HMRC, while her mother ran their family owned deli.
Asante identifies herself as ‘Black British,’ and thus views the world from a dual perspective that she calls ‘the extra eye’: “I’m the child of parents who were born and raised in a British colony and saw it achieve independence. From the age of four, I would go back to Ghana for summer holidays. My father raised me as a daughter of Africa. I know what independence meant to my parents and it therefore means a huge amount to me. This was the opportunity to tell the story of one African country’s journey to independence.
“But I consider this as much a British story as it is an African story. It’s as much a part of Britain’s history as of Botswana’s. And it was important for me to walk in the shoes of all its characters. And that included the British politicians whose actions may have appeared stereotypically racist but whose motivation was to protect their national interest. I wanted to show the very real political predicament of the British Government.
“I also made a deliberate choice to tell the story through the eyes of both Seretse and Ruth. Black audiences will recognise the experience of being ‘the other.’ But when Ruth arrives in Bechuanaland, it’s she who is the ‘outsider’ and she’s regarded with suspicion at first. So you’re dealing with the ‘other,’ whether it’s him in London or her in Africa. Each is in the other’s land. I really wanted to show Ruth desperately seeking to be accepted by the people of Botswana – she was not a “white saviour”, she needed them to support her, and it was as part of that community that she and the Bangwato become masters of their own fate”.
Amma’s previous work underlines her interest in stories that explore national, racial and cultural barriers and issues of social justice and equality. Her first film, A Way of Life (2004) (which she wrote and directed), dealt with three bigoted white teenagers in Wales who persecute a Muslim neighbour; it won many writer and director awards internationally, including a BAFTA for writer/director in a debut film. The title character in her next film, the highly praised Belle (2013), was a young woman who was the daughter of a British admiral and an African slave, raised in the 18th century in a grand stately home as part of a wealthy family. Her guardian was Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, who later passed legal rulings that led to the abolition of slavery.
In terms of the decisions she made in shaping the film, Amma credits Colour Bar, Susan Williams’s biography of Seretse and Ruth: “It had a massive input on the choices I made.” She cites the book’s references to Seretse’s sister Naledi and Ruth’s sister Muriel as being ‘key’ to broadening the story’s context; they enabled her to flesh out those characters.
“I think we’ve now reached a point where we can tell African stories through the eyes of African characters and that’s incredibly important to me” says Asante, “It means people of colour can be the centre of their own stories. Our story is Ruth’s and Seretse’s love story, but I wanted to make sure this was not just a story about their love. What attracted me to Ruth and Seretse was not so much the fact of their interracial marriage, but what flowed from it – the unique political fallout and how they endured such intense prejudice. I am always drawn to stories of people who fight for what they believe – the fact that Seretse and Ruth fought for their love and their country is what attracted me to their journey”.
History, Politics, Context
Author Susan Williams, whose book Colour Bar is the primary source for A United Kingdom, is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Affairs. Here she offers some background to the years in which the story took place:
The British Empire
“At the end of World War II, the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, incorporating India; dozens of territories across Africa and Asia; and self-governing dominions such as Canada and Australia.”
The Meaning Of Protectorate
“Bechuanaland was one of a number of ‘protectorates’ within the Empire, where local rulers kept some of their traditional powers but were subject to British overrule. Bechuanaland was lightly colonised because it had little to offer Britain: it was largely semi-desert, and diamonds and other minerals had yet to be discovered. The white population was small, and both racial inequalities and segregation were firmly established. There was no administrative capital within the territory, and British affairs were run from South Africa, through the British High Commissioner. The protectorate was managed on a shoestring, with limited resources available for education and health care. Many Batswana were malnourished, and it was estimated that at least a third of all babies died before the age of five.
“For the people of Bechuanaland, the designation “protectorate” was invested with a particular meaning – protection had been requested of Queen Victoria by Seretse’s grandfather to combat the threat of incorporation into neighbouring South Africa. Although British rule was widely resented by the Batswana, South Africa’s racism and policy of apartheid was considered a greater danger.”
The End Of Empire
“In 1947, the year before the Khamas married, India left the British Empire to become two selfgoverning nation states: India and Pakistan. In 1957, the year after Seretse’s return from exile, the Gold Coast became Ghana, the first British territory in Africa to achieve self-rule. African nationalism and the wind of change was sweeping the continent, and Bechuanaland became independent Botswana in 1966. Botswana was at that time listed by the UN as one of the world’s 10 poorest nations and the least developed nation in Africa. Its transformation over the intervening 50 years has been remarkable. “
Susan Williams’s detailed research
In the detailed research she undertook to write Colour Bar, Susan Williams visited Botswana, and all the towns associated with the Khamas’ story. She studied more than 1,000 files about the Khamas in Britain’s public records office; some of these were closed, but she persuaded the government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to have them opened for her. She also won the co-operation of the Khama family; Seretse’s son Ian (now president) was vicepresident at the time and he arranged access to records, photos, and people in villages she wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see: “But at no time did they seek to influence my perception of the past events. I’d never experienced that before.”
“There was a strong sense of duty and obligation between Seretse and Tshekedi for the sake of the nation,” she says. “They put aside their differences for the common good and the sake of the people. I draw a parallel here with Nelson Mandela.
Mandela actually sought political refuge in Bechuanaland in the early 1960s, before he was tried and imprisoned in South Africa. Addressing the nation of Botswana, Mandela declared: “We have so much to learn from you.”
Some authors have reservations about big-screen adaptations of their work, but Susan insists: “I loved the film. I’ve been choked up and sobbed, especially when Seretse and Tshekedi come together. It captures the truth of what happened. I feel totally honoured to be part of this. There’s a strong relationship between film and book.”
She praises director Amma Asante’s attention to detail: on one occasion Amma called Susan from Botswana to check the pronunciation of a character’s name. “They got it slightly wrong, so Amma reshot the scene,” Susan reports. In pre-production, she received emails from producer Rick McCallum. “They were trying to find the exact house where Seretse and Ruth first lived in Serowe. I told them about it, where I thought it was situated. People were trying to find the house. They could have found another, but they wanted the real one. To me, that’s part of why the film’s so moving.” When Ruth died in 2002, Susan’s husband showed her a newspaper obituary about Lady Khama, as she had become: “He said: ‘this is your next book.’ And I could see it was an inspiring story.
“I saw the birth of Botswana as the birth of a nation, overcoming obstacles and difficulties with Seretse the founding father. He and Tshekiedi put aside their differences, and there’s a kind of integrity about that. There was a compulsion to me to tell that story of good triumphing over bad.”