The outsider's story

Amma Asante on exploring otherness in A United Kingdom.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

A United Kingdom and Belle director Amma Asante;
A United Kingdom and Belle director Amma Asante; "I love the idea that things aren't always what they seem." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The day before the red carpet US Premiere at The Paris Theatre in New York, Amma Asante, the director of A United Kingdom, which stars David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike with Laura Carmichael, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Jessica Oyelowo, Terry Pheto, Abena

Ayivor, Vusi Kunene, Jack Davenport and Tom Felton, sat down with me for a conversation. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert, production designer Simon Bowles, costume designer Anushia Nieradzik, The Color Bar by Susan Williams, setting up the meeting of Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, sisterhood, the importance of a speech, Brighton Rock with Richard Attenborough, and her next film Where Hands Touch with Amandla Stenberg and George MacKay were touched upon.

Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo)
Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo)

The private obstructions for Ruth (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse (David Oyelowo) are only the beginning when they meet and fall in love in 1947 London. Because he is next in line to become King of Bechuanaland, the circles trying to hinder this union included not only Seretse's uncle but also the British Government. An interracial marriage could threaten relations with neighboring South Africa, where apartheid had just been made law.

"When a man tells a lie he loses his dignity - so does a country," Seretse concludes in a memorable speech. Asante connects the political with the love story to explore the timeliness of both and breathes life into arguments that are still going on today in this world.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The first time we met was at La Grenouille at a lunch hosted by the British Ambassador to the United Nations.

Amma Asante: Ah, my goodness me, yes! In 2014.

Seretse Khama's aunt Ella Khama (Abena Ayivor)
Seretse Khama's aunt Ella Khama (Abena Ayivor)

AKT: We talked about sister-ship and the importance of it. I noticed that you thematised it again in this film

AA: I did it again. It had to be. It was very important to me. A couple of reasons. One is that of course Seretse's decision to bring a white woman back to Africa to be queen was very bold and very courageous and very controversial. I couldn't shy away from that fact. So it was very important that the women of Botswana, of Bechuanaland as it was then, had a voice.

It was also very important to me that they had agency. So that Ruth's acceptance came through them. That they had the power. Because they weren't allowed to vote in the Kgotla (Public Assembly). They were kept away from politics but it didn't mean that they weren't political. That acceptance had to come through them for me.

On Seretse Khama's (David Oyelowo) speech:
On Seretse Khama's (David Oyelowo) speech: " I wanted to speak to the people who would not agree on either side of interracial relationships."

Apart from the fact that I really wanted to explore the idea of the Other. And interesting to have the white person be the Other in this situation because she was in Africa - but to also involve sisterhood within that, sister-ship within that. So it dawned on me that a great way would be to honour the truth - which is that these women would have found it very difficult. Even if he just brought an outsider - forget colour - this would be hard. Then she is this woman from the very country that has colonised them.

One could honour their point of view whilst also creating a journey in which friendship and sisterhood becomes tantamount to the relationship. And, you know, definitely if I'm going to show women fighting on screen, I'm definitely also going to show sisterhood. I'm never just going to leave it as that.

AKT: And it isn't just one scene, which is so often the case. The theme threads through the whole film. Even at home with her own sister Muriel [Laura Carmichael].

AA: Very, very much. I remember looking at the film as we came through the first almost complete edit, looking at it. And I said, we have to shoot some pickups. We have to shoot a scene with Ruth in bed with her sister before she goes to Africa. We really have to set up that relationship with the sister more strongly in order that we see its repetition with the sister-in-law later on. We actually went back and shot some more scenes.

Rosamund Pike is Ruth Williams in A United Kingdom
Rosamund Pike is Ruth Williams in A United Kingdom Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It's a great balance between the private and the public that you capture in this film. "When a man tells a lie, he loses his dignity. So does a country." There are some very relevant lines in there.

AA: Very relevant. They resonate. Yes, yes, yes. And that was a particular line that existed in Guy's [Hibbert] script when I came onboard. Obviously we did more development after I came onboard but that was already there from the beginning. It's a beautiful, resonant line - and oh, how resonant it is today!

AKT: The idea of blocking someone from entering a country is in your film. There is a travel ban for Seretse.

AA: Who knew?

AKT: I loved many of the details. The boxing setting at the very beginning. You worked with the same production designer [Simon Bowles]?

AA: Yes, as for Belle. Seretse was a boxer. The sport he chose to involve himself in was boxing. But I also loved it at the beginning of the film as an analogy for the fight, for the struggle.

Seretse Khama's sister Naledi Khama (Terry Pheto)
Seretse Khama's sister Naledi Khama (Terry Pheto)

AKT: What was the location? Where did you shoot the beginning?

AA: It's in a place called Greenwich. You've actually got me! Because we actually used it in Belle as well. We used it from a different point of view. You never saw the side of it that we used in A United Kingdom. We used the other end of the room. It's called the Painted Hall in Greenwich in South East London. It's a very very beautiful place and obviously we redressed it a little bit.

AKT: It looks like a cathedral for boxing - which is a totally fascinating juxtaposition.

AA: Exactly. We brought the boxing ring in. It's a great analogy for fighting a clean fight.

AKT: Which he does. In his speech about the abomination of apartheid, he says "Race must have no bearing on equality and justice." Is that taken from Seretse's original speeches?

A United Kingdom poster at The Peninsula
A United Kingdom poster at The Peninsula Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AA: No. That was something that was important for me to include in the script. I wanted that line in the script because I understood that there would be people from both sides who would be watching the movie who may not agree with an interracial relationship. That may not be something that they felt comfortable with. So in having Seretse come home and speak to his people, it was very important to me that he should give them a compelling argument.

Even if he were just explaining himself, knowing that they would reject him as king, he should give them a compelling argument. I wanted to speak to the people who would not agree on either side of interracial relationships. I wanted a very logical argument. An emotional argument but a logical one. Which says that if you don't want to be a victim of prejudice, it is very important that you're not the perpetrator of it. That's what that speech does.

AKT: It's very powerful.

AA: It's made up, it's fictionalized but it's trying to speak to the people in the audience who may not agree with it. It's like: "Okay, you don't want to agree with it, that's fine. But please don't perpetrate prejudice if you don't want to be on the other end of it".

AKT: Very true. Very important. I noticed that often sentences or scenes begin one way and it's almost as if we're led astray a little bit.

AA: I love that. I do that.

AKT: And then they turn around. It's your specialty?

The Peninsula on Fifth Avenue for A United Kingdom
The Peninsula on Fifth Avenue for A United Kingdom Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AA: I love doing that because I think life isn't straightforward and I think we all exist in the gray areas of life. We're neither good nor bad, most of us. Life isn't black and white and I'm often dealing with situations where people want it to be black and white. And it isn't. I love the idea that things aren't always what they seem.

Read what Rosamund Pike had to say on A United Kingdom.

Coming up - Amma Asante on the colors of A United Kingdom, costume designer Anushia Nieradzik, David Oyelowo and The Color Bar by Susan Williams, setting up the meeting of Ruth and Seretse, Brighton Rock starring Richard Attenborough and her next film Where Hands Touch.

A United Kingdom opened in the US on February 10.

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