David Oyelowo on Interracial Marriage
In 1947, Seretse Khama, a Prince of Bechuanaland (then a British protectorate, now Botswana), met Ruth Williams, a London office worker, at a missionary event. Their attraction was immediate. She was captivated by his vision for a better world. He was struck by her willingness to embrace it.
In the Fox Searchlight Pictures new movie, A United Kingdom, the lead role of Prince Khama is played by British actor David Oyelowo, who is best known for his powerful portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 film Selma. Oyelowo was nominated for multiple awards for that film, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. Oyelowo received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture for Selma.
The role of Ruth Williams is played by the remarkably talented actress Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Pride & Prejudice). The film also stars Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, and Laura Carmichael with a cameo appearance by Oyelowo’s real-life wife, Jessica Oyelowo.
A United Kingdom is moving and utterly captivating. Oyelowo’s superb, multi-faceted, nuanced performance, makes the film significant for such a time as this. It is an interracial love story set amidst British and African history, and offers important lessons for a world wrought with racial tension. While Ruth and Prince Khama were a perfect match, their proposed marriage was challenged by their families and the government. Despite the intense opposition they faced, Seretse and Ruth never wavered. They fought for their love every step of the way, and in so doing changed their nation and inspired the world.
David Oyelowo is considered one of the best actors of this generation, and his movies are uncommonly valuable. This beautiful film opens to select theaters February 10 and is a perfect romantic date night movie.
Based on a true story, King Seretse Khama of Botswana and Ruth Williams, a white woman from London, met in the 1940s at a missionary society dance. When they married in 1948, they find themselves in the center of a conflict between nations, which will change economic and political history far beyond the walls of the home they shared. Their marriage altered the course of African history with turmoil initially but ultimately for much good, eventually leading Botswana to independence.
Pike’s character Ruth Williams (later Lady Khama), has served as a WAAF ambulance driver during the Second World War, and now works as a clerk for a firm of underwriters at Lloyd’s of London.
Ruth met Sir Khama (then Prince Seretse Khama), the chief of the Bamangwato tribe, who became Botswana’s first President in 1966, when he was attending law school in England. Under his leadership, the country achieved significant economic and social progress, while Ruth was a politically active and influential First Lady. However, first they had to overcome the wave of bigotry due to their controversial marriage. When they married, Ruth’s father threw her out of the house. Seretse’s regent uncle declared “if he brings his white wife here, I will fight him to the death.” Further, the British government bent under pressure from apartheid South Africa, attempted to stop the marriage, and then prevented the couple from returning to Botswana.
Although the politics of their love story begins with hostility towards their courtship, the stakes were elevated by South Africa’s ban on interracial marriage, and the pressure on this neighboring country not to contradict its own apartheid policies. The interests of the British government also were at stake: British deep debts after World War II, British access to cheap South African gold, fears of the destabilizing effect their marriage might have in the colonies of its Empire, and more.
For eight years, Sereste and Ruth lived as exiles in England, until the Bamangwato sent a personal cable to the Queen in protest. Their sons Ian and Tshekedi also later became significant political figures in their country. The marriage is known to have inspired the film A Marriage of Inconvenience and the book Colour Bar.
David Oyelowo became fascinated with the story after reading Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar upon which the script for A United Kingdom would later be based. He urged director Amma Asante (Belle) to sign onto the project. Asante was born in London. Her father’s homeland, the British colony Gold Coast, become the independent nation of Ghana. Therefore, Asante was drawn to a story set in the context of an African nation gaining its independence.
A United Kingdom had a successful run at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. Sonoma Christian Home is delighted to share this exclusive interview with David Oyelowo about his work and his perspective on this influential film. SCH Editor At Large Dr. Diane Howard reports.
SCH: What was Seretse Khama’s family and national legacy from his father and grandfather, Khama the Great?
DO: Seretse’s father passed away when Serete was young. His grandfather had a strong influence on his life. His grandfather had “big shoes” for Seretse to fill. Seretse lived in the shadow of his grandfather’s greatness.
SCH: Was Seretse’s grandfather a Christian?
DO: Yes, his grandfather was a Christian who was influenced by Christian missionaries.
SCH: Who was Tshekedi Khama?
DO: He was Seretse’s uncle and the regent, who made life very difficult for Seretse.
SCH: One of Seretse’s sons is named Tshekedi. Did Sereste and Tshekedi ultimately reconcile?
DO: Yes, they did eventually reconcile. Great Britain had meddled in their relationship. Bechuanaland, now Botswana, had been a British protectorate, since the times of Sereste’s grandfather, who wanted Great Britain to protect his country from South Africa. But Great Britain was disingenuous because they were more interested in own interests, especially mineral rights.
SCH: Was Seretse a Christian man of faith?
DO: He was raised a Christian, but after he and Ruth were denied a Christian wedding, he became less vocal about the Christian faith. Ruth was a woman of faith.
SCH: Why were Seretse and Ruth at the missionary dance, where they met.
DO: Seretse was there because this was a place where African students in London gathered because they were welcome there.
SCH: How did British Christians at that time complicate their relationship and desire to marry?
DO: They denied them a Christian wedding.
SCH: How did Seretse’s and Ruth’s marriage end up positively affecting Botswana?
DO: Seretse became the first democratic president for his post-racial nation. It was not a racially divided country like South Africa on its border. Seretse’s post-racial attitude affected the post-racial attitude of Botswana, unlike the racially divided South Africa on its border.
SCH: How did their lives affect other nations?
DO: Attitude can change nations. Seretse Khama inspired Nelson Mandela.
SCH: In what way are Seretse and Ruth role models?
DO: They are inspiration for true love and spiritual connection. Their relationship was not based on lust or just attraction. They were lock step against the world.
SCH: What lessons can we learn from Seretse and Ruth?
DO: This has basically been an untold story until now. This is partly because Great Britain acted disgracefully. We need to be careful not to undervalue our own history.
SCH: Your films are relevant to today. How is this movie timely?
DO: Today we live in great unrest often along racial lines that keep people apart and distrusting each other. This story demonstrates how a nation, and nations can be brought together. This history exposes harmful prejudice on national and international levels, and shows how we have more in common with each other than we have differences.
In the story of A United Kingdom and in the real-life history behind this movie we see the power of love, endurance, and perseverance to overcome opposition and injustice. Governments and leaders of Great Britain and Bechuanaland (later to become Botswana) at one point deemed Seretse to be unfit as king, due to his relationship with Ruth. See real documentary footage on You Tube.
Pressures and negotiations persisted about whether Seretse was fit to be king. The couple endured forced separations even when Seretse was alone in London, arguing his case with the British government, while Ruth was alone in Bechuanaland.
Eventually, Seretse transformed his nation, with Ruth at his side. He led it from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of its more prosperous. It developed from a monarchy to a democracy. In 1966, Bechuanaland ultimately gained independence on the 30th of September, 1966, and Seretse became the first president of the Republic of Botswana. He was re-elected twice and died in office in 1980.
He said, “We stand virtually alone in our belief that a non-racial society can work now, but there are those … who will be only too delighted to see our experiment fail.” He worked with the country’s various ethnic groups and traditional chiefs to create a strong, democratic government. During his rule, Botswana had the most rapidly growing economy of the world and the discovery of diamonds allowed the government to finance a new infrastructure. Further, the country’s second major export resource, beef, facilitated the development of wealthy entrepreneurs.
Seretse did not allow neighboring liberation movements to establish camps in Botswana, although permitted transit to camps in Zambia resulted in raids from South Africa and Rhodesia. He helped to negotiate transition from the White minority rule in Rhodesia to the multi-racial rule in Zimbabwe. He was a key participant in the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC), launched in April 1980, shortly before his death.
Khama took strong measures against corruption. He adopted market-friendly policies to foster economic growth. He offered low and stable taxes to mining companies, liberalized trade, and increased personal freedoms. He kept income low to deter tax evasion and related corrupt practices. He strengthened liberal democracy, non-racism, and the rule of law. Public servants were hired on merit and the public bureaucracy was efficient and relatively free of corruption. Mining companies were encouraged to search the country for more resources, which lead to the discovery of additional copper, nickel, and coal. The government regularly renegotiated contracts with the mining companies, which provided good revenue for the country.
Sereste Khama said “Democracy, like a little plant, does not grow or develop on its own. If must be nursed and nurtured if it is to grow and flourish. It must be believed in and practiced if it is to be appreciated. And it must be fought for and defended if it is to survive.” The inscription on his grave stone reads, “The world is my church. To do good my religion.” Forty thousand people paid their last respects while his body lay in state.
Twenty-eight years after Khama’s death, his son Ian became the fourth President of Botswana. In the 2009 general election, he won a landslide victory, while a younger son, Tshekedi Khama II was elected as a parliamentarian. Today Sir Seretse Khama International Airport is Botswana’s main airport.
The Republic of Botswana in southern Africa is an economic success story with its rise from one of the poorest countries of the world to now hosting sound financial institutions with reinvestment of income from natural resources, including the riches of diamonds and other minerals.
The country also has a rich Christian missionary history. A 2015 story in All Africa.com states that the leadership of Botswana views religion including Christianity seriously as evidenced by the partnership that government enjoys with the religious organizations.
Minister of Labor and Home Affairs, Mr Edwin Batshu, told Parliament that the role played by the church in society was visible and much appreciated…examples were their contribution to development of educational and health facilities, delivery of social services such as care for vulnerable people building of family and societal morals as well as provision of the psycho-social support and nation building. …the constitution of Botswana provided for the protection of freedom of conscience including freedom of religion.
“To date, 1913 religious organizations have been registered and continue to enjoy this right…His Excellency the President of Botswana Lt Gen Seretse Khama Ian Khama (first-born son and second child of Sir Seretse Khama ) continuously consults with faith-based organizations on matters of national interest… convened a joint consultative meeting… representatives of the leadership faith-based organization registered under the societies act to consult them on issues of concern, and national interest, in particular the deteriorating morals among our people and promotion of tolerance among people of different religious beliefs and cultural values…” Thus, the legacy of Seretse Khama’s grandfather, Khama the Great, persists to today.
Sereste’s and Ruth’s relationship also have had a profound, positive influence on their own family and legacy. Thalia Khama, their granddaughter tells, for example, how her grandparents’ love for each other saved her life.
David Oyelowo has said, “I think that God doesn’t see colour…This absolutely chimes with my faith, in that I think Seretse Khama and Ruth were motivated by love and that love has a power that cuts through governments, culture, and all kinds of resistance-that your average person probably wouldn’t weather.”
David Oyelowo’s excellent, authentic, and honest movies are relevant and timely, providing solutions to many of today’s problems. His movies often picturize how to overcome opposition and evil with good.
A United Kingdom is now available on DVD! Pick up a copy and watch it at home.
To learn more about this author, at Dr. Diane Howard