“A United Kingdom” comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. In it an African prince falls in love with a white Englishwoman in 1947 London. Romance and race mix with international politics for a compelling story, relevant to our fractious times and reminiscent of “Loving.” The politics of “A United Kingdom,” however, are far more complex than those in “Loving.”
The film begins with scenes of Prince Seretse Khama of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), boxing in London. Director Amma Asante uses the scenes to illustrate how this black African prepares himself for the discrimination he faces in an all-white country. Seretse is played to powerful effect by David Oyelowo, known for his role as Martin Luther King Jr. in Oscar best-picture-nominated “Selma” (2014). Seretse is finishing his law degree at Oxford when he meets Ruth Williams, played by Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike, who starred in “Gone Girl” (2014). Despite their racial difference, the two are quickly smitten, and their courtship progresses through dances, jazz, and walks. In a charming, old-fashioned gesture, Seretse proposes on bended knee, and Ruth accepts without hesitation.
The racial fallout erupts immediately. Ruth’s father refuses to speak to his daughter, and Seretse’s Uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene), Bechuanaland’s regent, demands an end to the relationship with Ruth. Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the British protectorate’s governor, tries to bully Ruth and Seretse into abandoning their impending marriage. Nevertheless, the two wed and fly to Bechuanaland, where Tshekedi orders his nephew to divorce Ruth or give up his royal stature.
Additional international issues unfold. Seretse’s uncle joins forces with the British to reject the protectorate’s white queen. The British oppose Seretse’s marriage not just because of the racial issues between those two countries, but because Bechuanaland lies on the northern border of South Africa, whose government has recently instituted the practice of apartheid. The British fear a disruption in the two countries’ alliance.
Meanwhile, Seretse discovers that a mining company is exploring for minerals without permission. The British request that Seretse and Ruth return to London for negotiations. The new king’s political savvy grows clear as he asks his wife, now pregnant, to stay behind for fear that neither of them will be allowed to return.
“Race must have no bearing on equality and justice,” Seretse tells his people. Once he arrives in London, the British announce that he has been exiled from Bechuanaland for five years, and eventually, thanks to Winston Churchill’s betrayal, for life. Seretse finds allies in the British Parliament, and works to confirm his nation’s sovereign status, which will ensure that the proceeds for whatever minerals are discovered belong to Bechuanaland. The standoff between Seretse and the British continues to play out until Seretse finally returns home, completing the film.
As well as its absorbing story, a strong cast keeps “A United Kingdom” on track. In addition to David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike, Terry Pheto (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) plays Seretse’s sister Naledi, and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Crawley of “Downton Abbey”) plays Ruth’s sister Muriel.
For tickets and information for this and other films at the Film Center, see mvfilmsociety.com.