Almost three years ago, when I saw Belle, I described the film as being like "a piece of a person's life." (Click here to read that post.) Coming from director Amma Asante's latest film, A United Kingdom, I see that same stylistic fingerprint that I found so refreshing in Belle.
Unfortunately, A United Kingdom is one of those smaller release films with multiple release dates--so I thought for a moment that I might not be able to see it. In Arizona, you can currently see it at the new Harkins Camelview over at Scottsdale Fashion Square (which, by the way, is a very nice theatre). Anyways, because perhaps not everyone has heard of this film yet, I'll provide a basic summary.
It's a love story between a man named Seretse and a woman named Ruth. The details: it's 1947, he is about to take his role as king of Bechuanaland (present day Botswana), and she is white and British. They decide to get married because they love each other and they've resolved to overcome any issues that might come up. But the issues quickly become as much political as racial, and they're caught up in so much more than they had ever imagined they would have to deal with.
It's that very progression that works so well in this film. The early scenes are stripped of political and racial connotations. A man and a woman meet at a social event and immediately grow interested in each other. They meet again. They go dancing. They talk. They walk around at night talking. It's very intentionally just two people falling in love in the usual way.
Then the scene starts to change up a bit--once again in the usual way. A couple of issues start there in England because Ruth and Seretse are an interracial couple and this is 1947--again, though, this is expected, by both the characters and the audience. Not that they don't mind it, but this is what they know is coming, right?
Once they're married and they go to Bechuanaland, there are similar issues, only in reverse. This time it's Seretse's community rejecting Ruth, which she didn't really expect or at least not to this degree. And as I said, these issues soon escalate to (or perhaps I should say switch to) political issues.
Here's the thing. Ruth, in this film, is just a woman. Her characterization is carefully controlled. We know that she had a job but we don't know why she has that job or how she felt about that job or anything like that. We don't see any of her friends in England, just her parents and her sister. So there is no indication that she is someone who would have chosen to be in a political situation, or that she wanted to be in a social environment where she would have to adapt--nothing like that. She's not characterized as being the nicest woman on the planet--she's nice, yes, but that isn't supposed to be the point of her character. The point is simply that she fell in love with someone and she kept her word to love him and stand by him and to, by extension, love and stand by his country and his people. She makes adjustments and gains the respect and love of his people because she decides to do her part in making this union work.
Seretse's characterization matters more, of course, because as a ruler, he is political and he was raised to be political. He knows that his choice to marry Ruth will have political effects, but he also considers this a personal decision that he should be allowed to make on his own. Further, in the way that he sees it, this marriage can have a positive effect on the socio-political scene of his country; he wants equality and he sees acceptance of this marriage as a step in the right direction. It's like when he explains why he's going to the film screening even though, as king, he is the only black person allowed to go; he says he goes out of defiance and out of the hope that things will be better someday. Seretse is smart. He knows what issues belong to which category and he can see from where exactly conflict derives--and he in turn uses that awareness to try and improve everything. He sees how things are and why they are and how they could be and how he hopes for them to be.
Amma Asante, as a director, has the ability to portray the personal side of political situations. There is the sense of daily life, daily people, and daily choices to this film, as was also the case with Belle. People who are just trying to live their lives in the best way that they can see. People who see things in a straightforward way and have the world tell them that, no, it isn't so simple, you can't do things this way or be this way because we won't allow it. People who take those obstacles and look at them and elegantly overcome them--for personal reasons and so that other individuals can live better because the road is being paved for them.
That elegance is what I responded to so much in both of these films. Sure, it's exciting to watch films that show the defiance that led to social reform. But remember all my talk lately that I don't like rebellion for rebellion's sake? Sometimes with films that focus so much on the defiance, I feel like we're focusing too much on rooting for people talking back to others when the point is supposed to be finding a way in which we can all work together. So we have to start in looking at our daily lives and seeing how we are or aren't doing that.
My final note is just to say that I encountered in this film a bit of history that I knew essentially nothing about. I don't know how it was for everyone else, but my world history classes consisted of the Fertile Crescent, Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the World Wars--and little if anything else. I feel like I've learned more history from my literature classes than from my history classes (okay, yes, I've taken more literature than history classes, but even in high school). At one point in the film, Ruth is asked if she knows the word apartheid. I didn't know it until I took Holocaust Studies my junior year of high school--and even then, there was only so much time to learn about everything connected to this . . . one word. So I'll just take a moment to appreciate that A United Kingdom was a film I could connect to on a personal level while also being a film that showed me places and situations and history with which I was entirely unfamiliar.
I hope I haven't talked too much about the plot of this film. My point is, go see it if you have the opportunity; it's wonderfully done. And especially with the types of running conversations relating to politics and socio-politics that I've been hearing lately, I wonder why more people aren't getting excited about this film and talking about it.