When Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom was announced as the opening night gala selection for the 2016 BFI London Film Festival it was widely reported as an important landmark in the history of the festival. Not only was this the second opening gala film in as many years to be helmed by a female director (following Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette), it was the first to be directed by a black woman. Coming during a year that saw the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and the BFI’s own celebration of black filmmakers (the ‘Black Star’ season), this was rightfully seen as a positive, and decades overdue, event.
A United Kingdom lands gently, choosing not to echo the howl of disenfranchised anger that defined much of the Black Star program, and what audiences have come to expect from such embattled black, male, American auteurs such as Spike Lee and John Singleton, or the (occasionally) socially pointed comedy of Keenan Ivory Wayans. For while A United Kingdom addresses interracial marriage, colonialism, and apartheid, it accomplishes these goals under the guise of a generic and melodramatic romance-biopic.
The film tells the true story of the prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) Seretse Khama’s (David Oyelowo) marriage to white Londoner Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) in 1948, their subsequent battle to be accepted by African and English society, and Seretse’s attempts to establish an independent Bechuanaland.
The period detail and the casting comfortably place the viewer within the territory of a BBC drama, a veritable British cinema ‘safe space’. This version of London – all washed out beige tweed, smoky rooms, and rain-slicked streets – falls off the pages of a Terence Rattigan play. Africa meanwhile, is golden and tourist brochure glossy. Oyelowo and Pike give strong performances and have the requisite chemistry whilst simultaneously epitomising reliability (both come from stage backgrounds, both were involved with the National Youth Theatre, and both have racked up an impressive collection of awards and nominations for their film work). The only piquant casting here is Asante’s continued use of Hogwarts alumnus Tom Felton. She currently stands as the only director making use of his particular range of spineless schemers (in this case a British government official).
A United Kingdom strikes all the standard narrative beats and dramatic rhythms that one might expect. The Hollywood biopic template is honoured: naïve rise > chastening setback > humble triumph. No opportunity to score the emotional valleys and peaks with swelling strings is passed up. Framing and editing is standard and unobtrusive bar one virtuoso instance in a House of Commons corridor (the literal corridors of power…) where one shot is completely reversed – a full 180° – from the preceding setup. Perhaps this serves as a visual representation of Winston Churchill’s later renege on his promise to end Prince Khama’s exile from Bechauanaland, or perhaps Asante cannot resist one impulsive directorial flourish. The political content of the film, whilst meant well, is presented didactically. ‘Apartheid, do you know this word?’ British government representative of Southern Africa Jack Canning (Jack Davenport) asks Ruth. She does not. Are the audience really to believe that the fiancé of the heir to a Kingdom that borders South Africa would not know what apartheid is? Of course this allows Asante to fill us in on the meaning of the word. However, does the audience really need telling? Did the word disappear from the cultural lexicon sometime over the past 20 years?
It is precisely this conventional style and the generic structure that make A United Kingdom effective. The political cuckoo in the nest is the fact that by disguising her films, almost verging on parody, as the standard sweeping-romance-cum-political-message-drama that dominate US and UK Oscar-flirting cinema, Asante is sneaking films with black leading roles, and about black social issues, into the mainstream. Watching her films I slip into an anaesthetised state of comfortable recognition. Yet something pricks my attention and pulls me out of this state. Beneath the didactic storytelling is the unsaid presence of blackness onscreen. And this is making me question the sincerity of the otherwise familiar comforts of her style.
This disguise of convention garners funding, publicity, and reaches a wider audience. Asante previously pulled the same trick with 2013’s Belle. Encompassing investigations of the legality and morality of the slave trade in the 18th century and, as in A United Kingdom, addressing interracial romance, Belle spins a narrative out of a painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw): a black freewoman who lived for a time at Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath in London. The film is ostensibly a costume drama in the Austen adaptation tradition, but once again Asante makes a crucial rebellious twist by the simple act of casting a black lead actor.
Not a great deal is known about the historical Dido. What she facilitates is an opening for Asante to tell a story about slavery and society through the semi outsider perspective of a mixed race character. Likewise, whilst much more is known of Seretse and Ruth Khama, once again historical fact is used as a justification for an exploration of racial segregation, colonial politicking, and interracial relationships. The truths behind these narratives fade in significance as they are essentially Trojan horses with which Asante can deliver her polemics into to multiplex. Whilst these concerns might be presented in a palatable package of history, who can say they are not relevant in contemporary society?
This realisation forces a reinterpretation of the seemingly conventional content of A United Kingdom. The appearance of a young and idealistically pure Tony Benn may previously have been viewed as the latest in a series of cinematic hagiographies of 20th century figures: see Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech for an example. But when one considers that, in A United Kingdom, Benn is criticising Churchill, then perhaps he is deployed precisely as a criticism of sanitary biopics epitomised by The King’s Speech. Is Asante also claiming that the greatest Briton of all time™ might have been racist? This is not soft-pedalling history.
It is in this manner that Asante’s films become unconventional and destabilising. They are uncanny in the sense that they closely resemble the conventional (read male and/or white) cinema of the US and the UK. However, the mere presence of black skin allows her films to incubate an insidious critique of mainstream cinema from within. Whether this approach will remain sustainable for her next project, Where Hands Touch, may represent Asante’s greatest challenge thus far. The film will represent the relationship between a young mixed race girl and a Nazi youth member in WWII Germany. The Holocaust remains the most historically and ideologically immovable event in living memory, and artistic attempts to represent it can often turn out woefully insufficient. However, films that dash themselves against the rocks of the atrocity are often those that try to contend with it head on. If anything, Asante’s habit of approaching history askance should serve her well.