Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
On every side the wicked prowl…
as vileness is exalted among humankind.
Psalm 12:1-2, 8
Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert’s exquisite film is based on Susan Williams’ well-received 2007 book Color Bar. It seems remarkable to me that this story of an interracial love story should come out upon the heels of Loving. Asante’s film is about an international romance, whereas the latter is a domestic one in this country, but each had widespread repercussions. The state of Virginia’s attempt to destroy the Lovings’ marriage led to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down miscegenation laws. A United Kingdom had an international impact. When the British government, appeasing South Africa’s apartheid government, tried to prevent Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the latter a London office worker, from marrying, there was an uproar in both England and Africa. The film’s title is a cleverer one than the book’s in that it makes us think of Ruth Williams’ home country, while at the same time taking on an ironic twist, in that the fierce debate over the interracial marriage threatened to make Seretse’s homeland, the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, anything but united.
Seretse Khama is descended from a long line of Bechuanaland chiefs who bore the title of king. He has been in England to study law while his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) serves as regent. In 1947 in London at a church-sponsored dance he meets Ruth, they discover they have a love for jazz and dancing, and after a whirlwind romance, she accepts his proposal of marriage. One night on a street they learn depth of racism in England when several thugs attack them while they are out walking. British government representative Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) appears at Ruth’s office to warn her that their marriage is unacceptable to the government, and her father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) tells her he will refuse to see her if she goes through with her plans. The two are sobered by the opposition, but decide to go ahead anyway. From the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, the clergy are against the interracial marriage, so they pledge themselves to each other in a civil marriage. So much for the church boldly preaching God’s love for all of humanity!
In Africa, many of the crowd awaiting them in front of the family home welcome them, but the uncle sends Ruth into the house while he engages in a long talk with his nephew, the substance being that he refuses to accept a white woman as their queen. Inside, Seretse’s aunt and sister serve Ruth with refreshments, but treat her coldly. Saying that a queen must be of and know her people, they charge that her marriage is demeaning to the women of their country.
The native tribal council accepts the marriage, to the chagrin of the local British officials and Uncle Tshekedi, who states that he will no longer accept Seretse as the future king. The couple are ordered to return to England so that they can deal in person with the government, but Seretse, seeing this as a plan that would prevent Ruth from returning to the country, convinces her she must stay behind.
We then follow them as they live apart, Ruth, after suffering an illness, slowly winning over her sister-in-law and others by her genuine interest in the welfare of the impoverished people. In London, Seretse faces the duplicity and racism of various government officials, even Winston Churchill, although we never see this iconic politician. We do see Clement Atlee, who appears bent on placating the new racist South African government that in 1950 is setting up its apartheid system, he also joining in on the plot to discredit and keep Seretse from returning to his country. Told at first that he is exiled for five years, when Churchill returns to power, the new P.M. bans him for life, despite having claimed during the election process that he favored lifting the ban.
The courage and love of the two lovers is put to the test by all this opposition, with Seretse prevented from being present when Ruth births their first child, a daughter. Just what a plucky woman this former office typist is we see when she has to drive herself to the hospital. Earlier she had refused “the best doctor in Africa” because it would have meant traveling to South Africa.
The filmmakers probably turn the government officials into stereotypes, much as some American filmmakers have done with Southern “rednecks.” Many of the issues and history also have been simplified, but the film is not meant to be a documentary. It is a story, and all the better because it is basically a true one. The intrigue involving a mining company searching for diamonds is especially shortened, though it is made clear that the Brits would have loved to be able to claim the rights to the minerals by changing the status of Bechuanaland from a protectorate to a colony, hence their scheming to prevent Seretse from gaining power.
David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are well suited to their roles as the embattled couple bound by a love so strong that they will take on the world to maintain their bond. Quiet and unassuming in private, he becomes passionate when he addresses his people, telling him that he loves and wants to serve them, but that he also loves his wife and must have her by his side. Ms. Pike has us rooting for her as she moves from the ordinary life of a London typist, willing to lose her family for the sake of love and move to a totally unfamiliar land, where she is regarded by both the white colonials and most of the black population as an interloper.
The audience loved the Gandhian scene in Africa when the colonial officials have called for a mass meeting of the people to hear the terms of the new order they will live under. The camera shows us the officials, their wives, and the military brass all gathered on the platform. Then it is revealed that the field in front of them is empty. By now most of the people have accepted Ruth and the position of her husband, so they refuse to show up. Later on, the impasse between Seretse and his uncle is resolved in a very creative way, the scene of their reconciliation being a moving moment in the film. What an enchanting true story of the power of love and courage standing against racism and colonial oppression. Even more so when the end notes inform us that Seretse, after renouncing his claim to the crown, was elected president of the new nation of Botswana—and that he did not succumb, as far too many other African leaders did, to the lure of power and wealth.
Note: If you enjoyed this film, you will also want to see Ms. Amma Asante’s other film reviewed on this site, Belle, about a mixed-race woman in 18th century. Also, for more about Botswana see History Today’s “50 Years of Botswana.”
This review with a set of questions will be in the March 2017 issue of VP.