Interview with Filmmaker Amma Asante,
director of ‘A United Kingdom’
A United Kingdom, a film based on historic events, is being released just after Valentine’s Day on February 17th here in the states.
Directed by Amma Asante, a UK-born daughter of Ghanan immigrants, the story is about how the love between two people, King Seretse Khama of Botswana and white Englishwoman Ruth Williams literally changed all of Africa. They met while Khama was in London studying in 1947, and married in the late 1940s at exactly the same time as apartheid was being introduced in neighboring South Africa. Their marriage altered the course of history for his country of Botswana, and by extension, the whole continent of Africa.
Asante was the director of the highly acclaimed film Belle, and was brought onto A United Kingdom by David Oyelowo, the star and a co-producer of the film. They had worked together years before, and knew they could build a film true to the incredible events on which it is based. Rosamund Pike plays Ruth. What is most amazing about this story is it is, in fact, their love that led them to the courage and insight required to change an entire country. At one point Seretse gets banned for a number of years from his own country, Ruth experiences more resistance than she ever thought possible from her husband and king’s population, and they both have to face racism from every direction. It is a film, without question, that comes at what could be dubiously named “the perfect time”. Since the new administration took control, Americans are seeing alarming changes that put immigrants, women, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community at risk, and allow far more laterality for racists and bigots across the country. I spoke to Asante about the film and her perspective as a British female director on its relevance to today’s political and culture climate, as well as her thoughts on women in film:
“What I love about the story, and why I think it resonates today, is you can see how big fat political decisions have a huge impact on ordinary lives.”
Leslie Combemale (Cinema Siren): I’m so glad you opened my eyes to a story in history I knew nothing about. This really is true love in action. It feels like a huge story and a very personal one at the same time.
Amma Asante: Those are the stories that I love the most —especially in the climate that we’re in today, we realize that the political is something that runs through every aspect of our lives. Quite often we aren’t really thinking about the political with a small “p”, the political that’s involved in relationships and a family’s culture, and the political relationships we have at work. When I look at life and look at relationships, I see politics all of the time. I wanted to tell this big story, as you’ve described it, but I wanted to show as it is passed through the prism of the very personal story of Seretse and Ruth. What I love about the story, and why I think it resonates today, is you can see how big fat political decisions have a huge impact on ordinary lives. Just the simple fact that this woman fell in love with a man she had no idea was going to be a king. She followed her heart, and was courageous enough to move into existing in a world she knew nothing about, and never experienced before. She moved away from her safety net, to explore something new and different, and suddenly all of these politics descended upon her in a way she couldn’t quite imagine…and neither could he. I found that fascinating. I found it fascinating that this was a real story where a couple stood up in every way to politics and family pressure and absolutely everything you can imagine.
LC: One thing I couldn’t help thinking was that people don’t seem to learn from history. The timing of A United Kingdom’s release in the U.S. is perfect given what the new administration has effected: The first is the exposure of virulent racism and the second is the Muslim ban. Racism is definitely an aspect of Seretse and Ruth’s struggle, and the film also shows when he left his home and was then banned from coming back. This movie is frighteningly timely. Can you talk about that?
AA: I think what can be scary as an outsider (not somebody who lives in America)—I’m often asked about the difference between racism today and back when the story takes place, and what I think is, it’s much more subversive today, and much more an undercurrent than it was then. What I think is interesting about Seretse’s story is it was pretty subversive back then, because they used all of these excuses. Nobody was upfront. In the story, we make sure that the audience gets to see behind the scenes, and the real reasons this is happening, but in terms of what Seretse was being told from the very beginning was that it had nothing to do with South Africa, it had nothing to do with apartheid law. He was told it had to do with the fact that his uncle was angry that he was returning with a white woman and an outsider. They as the colonialist rulers of his country said they were simply doing what’s in the best interest of the people. So there was this facade that was placed in front of what was pure racism, and that racism really boiled down to the fact that South Africa was bringing Apartheid laws in, and an influential black man coming home with his white wife was seen as something that was very provocative. They thought it might perhaps persuade other influential black men they could do the same thing. Rather than simply saying that to the couple, they pretended it was about an argument that was going on between the members of the royal family of Batswana.
The fear I have is, if you’re overtly racist to me, I know where I stand. If you’re an overtly racist person I meet for a job interview, for instance, I have the choice as to whether I come to work for you, and whether I take the job. If you don’t tell me you’re racist, if your racism is more underground, if your racism is covered up by the facade of other things, then it’s easier for me to fall into your trap. That’s what worries me. Today we’re in a place where Seretse and Ruth were. There’s a facade.
LC: I think anyone watching this film might consider the a real struggle they might themselves have about personal vs societal obligation or responsibility. Granted, we aren’t all royalty, but I think this movie really does ask us to look inside ourselves, and how we might behave in the same situation. If I were a women of color, living in that country at the time, I could see feeling betrayed by Seretse’s choice. I love how you include the African women around Ruth, and the story arc of Seretse’s sister, for that reason.
“I really wanted to rest at the heart of the story, this idea, which is, love is love”
AA: When I first came on to the project, the black African women really didn’t have a voice. That was a concern to me, because we were talking about a white woman coming to Africa as a queen, and essentially her role would have been with the women, so it’s important they be a part of the story.
My uncle is a chief in Ghana in West Africa where my parents are from. I was born in London, but my parents are from Ghana. My uncle has a position that is very important to the community where he’s from, and also with the family. I kept thinking, “what would it have been like, if my uncle had returned home after a period of time of time in the UK for education…forget color for a moment, even if she had simply just been an outsider, just different, how my mother and her sisters would have responded”… and from that really came the scene where Ruth is first confronted by Seretse’s sister and also Seretse’s aunt. I really just tried to channel all of those feelings and emotions as how it must feel to have somebody impressed upon me in this way. At the same time, I really wanted to rest at the heart of the story, this idea, which is, love is love. Once the sister realizes how courageous Ruth is being, that in fact to be ‘the other’ in somebody’s country is very hard, and yes it’s true that often we don’t see who ‘the other’ is, but Ruth really is that in Botswana at this point, and once she sees that Ruth’s courage stems from the fact that she loves Seretse deeply, and therefore is trying to withstand this firestorm that’s coming at her, the sister’s heart is open. I always felt that Ruth’s acceptance had to be in the hands of the women, and so that we can breathe a sigh of relief when the African women accept her. Empowering those women, for me was essential. They had to have agency on the screen.
I always try to make my films as if I’m an audience member, and I think with this and my previous film Belle, what this film feeds me as an audience member, is the knowledge that when love meets courage, we evolve as a humanity. We can have love on its own, and we can have courage on its own, but together they are a very powerful thing.
What happened for Seretse is that he was moved powerfully because of his own fears, about marrying an outsider and how his people would feel about it, to show them just how important they were to him, and how much a part of him they were. I think that’s why he was able to push forward, and bring his country to independence. Out of his feelings of love for this women came a better understanding of his love for his people. That meant that he pushed hard to bring democracy to his country. I’m sure many people would have been fine with the traditional means that presided over Batswana at the time, but what they wound up with was a combination of the two.
“the message of A United Kingdom for today is with love and courage comes progression”
I think the message should be for now, with all that’s happening in the democratic world we live in today, is that with love and courage comes progression. Experiencing such overt racism as he did, which led to him being separated from his country as well as his wife, I imagine fired up the love for both. It’s a beautiful thing to leave your home country and travel and experience other cultures, but it’s an entirely different thing to be exiled and kept from your home. It’s completely inhumane to separate someone from their country, because you separate them from their identity. Yet, when this happened to Seretse, he became an even stronger and better ruler.
LC: That’s certainly inspirational for those struggling right now with how to direct their activism. As a woman director, do see both writing and directing as a way to have better control over the destiny of your work and your career? Is there any difference working in the UK verses the US?
AA: Yes. I absolutely see it as the only way to have some control over the destiny of the work, and also to be clear to an audience about the things that inspire me in life, the things that bring me joy that I can share with them, as well as examining the joys and concerns they have in life. So without being a writer/director, I don’t know how I’d be able to tell the kind of stories that are important to me, or get them onscreen, including how they were sold, how they were marketed, and how they came to meet an audience.
As to working in the UK verses working in the US, I haven’t worked in the US yet, but on paper, there doesn’t seem to be a difference. The statistics in both reflect a very similar, very dire situation for women directors. In terms of population of either countries, they are not reflected in the numbers of female directors. There are so few of us, considering we are 51% of the population. Both countries have a way to go.
LC: We’re seeing some great work from women directors of color—You, Dee Rees and Ava DuVernay are three examples. You are telling stories representing more diversity. What is your advice, that might be unique to your experience, you’d give to any young women who want to be filmmakers?
AA: I would say that for each choice you make, in terms of the film you want to make, it must be a subject matter that you love. When I was going up, I used to be told, “tell what you know”, and for me that really hasn’t been the way forward. I have explored worlds that have nothing to do with anything I know, but the themes resonated with me. What I have chosen is stories i’m in love with, because you have to live with those stories for many years. Seretse fought to bring his country to independence and to be with the woman he loved, but it didn’t happen overnight. It’s the same with filmmaking. It takes years.
In Britain, it takes an average of seven years to bring a film to fruition. If you don’t love the subject, if you don’t love what you’re doing, I think it’s very difficult for you to tell a story that other people will love, but I think you’ll also lose focus. That film will never get made. From the get-go, when you pick a story, an idea, or a theme, make sure it’s an idea that you are thoroughly in love with, so that when the work gets tough, when you’re banging on every single door and every answer is a no, you keep going, you keep that level of tenacity that is important, because ultimately you have utter faith and belief in that project you’re trying to get off the ground.
LC: Your next project is “Where Hands Touch”…(with George MacKay of Pride and Captain Fantastic, and Amandla Stenberg who played Rue in The Hunger Games). Where are you in getting that to theaters?
AA: Yes! I’m in the edit at the moment. We don’t have a release date yet, we’re waiting, but we do know it’s in 2018. I’m very excited about it. Amandla Stenberg gives a phenomenal performance in it. I can’t wait for people to see it.
LC: Well, good luck on the great success with A United Kingdom in the US. It’s a film that needs to be seen.
AA: Thank you!