Docudramas attract audiences only if they are made on famous world events. The same can be said of biographies. But, sometimes it is the not so well-known stories that add weight to the well-known ones, by providing one more piece of evidence towards a larger story. And sometimes, audiences need to be treated to stories that are just as passionate, as the popular ones, but have not received attention because they lack glamor or are not about figures and events we know much about. Other than adding to our knowledge about a certain country, event or a person, such stories demonstrate how stories of human spirit’s triumph are not restricted to a few countries or cultures that are usually served to us, by the mainstream media.
So, watching A United Kingdom, a movie that features Botswana, a country that usually appears on the sleepy pages of newspapers was a welcome surprise. Beyond being known for the Kalahari, Okavango, and diamond mines, the world does not hear much about Botswana. Formerly known as Bechuanaland, Botswana has generally had a low profile in international cinema. To the dismay of Hollywood filmmakers, Botswana, unlike many African countries, cannot provide stories of starvation or civil wars, which have marked a majority of the movies associated with Africa.
Earlier depicted in comedies like Gods Must be Crazy (movie) series, and documentaries based on the bestsellers such as Cry of the Kalahari, Botswana’s most recent claim to fame in the entertainment world was the dramatization of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective.
A United Kingdom however, is a drama that has all the components required for making a movie memorable, – conflict, royalty, oppression, family feud, and true love that over comes race and social conflict. Despite that, the movie may achieve only limited success, and remain restricted to festivals, history classes and some elite circles. Not because it is not well made or not well acted. But, because people associate movies concerning African continent, mostly with poverty and war. And here is a movie that not only has no wars or poverty at the center but, is about African royalty!!
A fitting tribute on fiftieth independence anniversary of a country that despite being a star nation in Africa, with regards to economic development, does not call much attention to itself.
The film is based on the real life events of the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo) of the Bamangwato tribe. The movie begins with Khama’s time as Law student in London, and his meeting with Ruth Williams (played by Rosamund Pike), a white woman who is to become his wife, despite objections from both the families, and the British government. While Khama’s family is concerned about whether or not the people of Bechuanaland will accept Ruth, the British government is worried about its relations with South Africa and its impact on their role in entire Southern Africa.
In the process of salvaging their own role in the region, British government not only tries to ‘divide and rule’ the people and royalty of Botswana but also the royal couple. Khama is exiled from his own country and is actually away from his wife, when he becomes a father. In addition, Churchill who promises lifting the ban on Khama’s return, goes back on his word.
The movie is a great illustration of how even the smallest of nations, were not saved from British empire’s insidious strategies. Interesting part of the movie that links the story to Botswana’s present day prosperity is the discovery of diamond mines in the country, which Khama ensures belongs to the people of the country and not the empire.
Directed by Amma Asante, the movie is based on historian Susan Williams’ book of the same name.
While both direction and acting are commendable, the movie could have benefited from some additions. For example, audiences could use some more examples of how Ruth endears the people of Botswana and becomes the queen of their hearts. The beauty of the country could have been given more attention, beyond the one token shot of wild life, which might as well have been commissioned from any public domain footage. Since we hardly get to see much about this country, a more creative direction, could have focused on incorporating unique aspects of Botswana’s culture, other than just the kgotla (village meeting like the panchayat) proceedings. While the movie is about African royalty, except a few mentions, we never experience that aspect, as if there was no difference between the England returned King and a commoner. If this were a movie about a western royalty, or even an Asian one for that matter, we would be treated to elaborate rituals and protocols. Surely there were a few things that could have been highlighted to reflect the ‘royal ways’. The way common Motswana were depicted was really cringe-worthy. It seemed as if most of the Motswana were old and rural. Sure even in the 1960s there were young and urban Motswana men and women. And if showing rural population was representative of attendance at a Kgotla, then at least some commoners could have been given voice. We never hear from the people of Botswana and their connection to their royalty.
The tension between the royalty and commoners from Britain who were serving the British Empire could have been teased out a bit more than just one mention by Naledi, Khama’s sister. And equally important is the fact that some light moments could have been included in the movie. While there is drama, the movie moves at a flat pace.
A colleague from Botswana suggested that, while length of a movie is a concern, its narration could have incorporated some scenes from contemporary Botswana, which would allow the country to free itself from an image of rondavels (traditional round homes with thatched roofs) filled villages to a prosperous nation that has remained strife free in a politically troubled continent.
Regardless, the movie is a welcome change, and a valuable addition to the movies made about Africa. Watch the movie to support the director and the cast, but also to learn a piece of history of this peaceful country.