by David Lamble
The new British-produced docudrama A United Kingdom is a slow-building but powerful example of history informing our current problems. Based on a true-life story, the film begins with an opposite-attracts, cute meet in WWII-era London between a future African king (Nigerian-born David Oyelowo) and a white woman who drove an ambulance during WWII in the south of England (Rosamund Pike). Director Amma Asante deliberately constructs this romantic moment in the shadow of Big Ben, a setting that becomes dramatically ironic when the wartime British government attempts to block the couple's relationship because of the threat it might pose to continued postwar British rule, and to the status of British colonies across the African continent.
Based on the book A Colour Bar by Susan Williams, the drama doesn't properly crank up until the couple is forcefully separated – he in London, she in Botswana – and we see how ruthless the British government could be in protecting the future of the empire. This low-key film fills a niche between Stephen Frears' The Queen (Elizabeth II has to cope with the power the late Princess Diana exerted on the imagination of the British people) and such dramas as Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, about Anglo American attempts to squash Third World independence movements around the developing world.
An ironic casting choice has the 20-something British actor Tom Felton play a nasty UK official who tries to block the biracial relationship on grounds of state. Felton is better-known to fans of the Harry Potter films as Harry's young rival Draco Malfoy. The young aspiring musician confided in an IMDB chat that "I'll take my clothes off whenever the job requires."
The driving force behind the project David Oyelowo, who doubles as a producer, told PBS' Charlie Rose that he feels his character, Seretse Khama, who gave up his kingship to become Botswana's first elected president, left behind a great example to the people of his country, who now "see themselves as a post-racial nation, and that's largely from the work of the two of them. This man had a huge capacity for love and loving his people. What you normally see about African leaders is their capacity for being corrupt, caring nothing about their people, let alone having a capacity to love. Having grown up in Nigeria myself for seven years, I know there are people like that all over Africa and we don't get to see them. So I was very keen on their getting to be seen."
A United Kingdom is rated PG-13 for some rough language and depictions of racism. The film opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.