TORONTO — As children of African descent growing up in England, both Amma Asante and David Oyelowo fell in love with classic British film epics from directors such as David Lean and Richard Attenborough. But they never saw anyone in those movies who looked like them.
“Film is such a potent and influential medium, but it’s largely being seen through the eyes of one specific demographic,” says Oyelowo in a telephone interview. He’s best known for playing Martin Luther King Jr., in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” “As a member of humanity who wants to see us in all our beauty, you have to have diversity of people telling these stories,”
Oyelowo signed on years ago to produce and star in an adaptation of historian Susan Williams’s nonfiction book “Colour Bar,” about the political crisis triggered by the 1947 interracial marriage between Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and British office clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). Oyelowo wanted a director who could bring both visual luster and an outsider’s perspective to the sweeping historical love story. Remembering Asante’s deft handling of a complex period romance across racial divides in her second feature, “Belle” (2013), Oyelowo tapped her to helm “A United Kingdom,” which opens Friday in Boston.
Asante understood the cinematic terrain immediately. “I wanted to make a classic film. As a female and a female of color — I’m going to use that word ‘diversity’ — the domain of the classic film has not been entrusted to us,” says Asante in an interview at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where “A United Kingdom” premiered in September. The following month, Asante became the first black director with a film opening the British Film Institute London Film Festival.
“A United Kingdom” begins in post-war London, where the sophisticated and charming Khama is studying law. He falls unexpectedly in love with the spirited Williams after they meet at a dance. Their subsequent marriage not only scandalizes Britain, it’s met with resistance from the Bechuanaland tribespeople when Khama and his bride return so he can begin his rule. An international crisis erupts when neighboring South Africa institutes new apartheid laws that prohibit interracial marriage. Struggling to rebuild its economy, the British government doesn’t want to alienate uranium-rich South Africa. Khama was exiled from Bechuanaland in 1951 for seven years; he would become the first president of Botswana when it gained independence, in 1966.
Asante came onboard after Guy Hibbert (“Eye in the Sky”) had already drafted a script. But she immediately set to work to make sure that “A United Kingdom” was first and foremost about Khama and Williams, not the white British leaders in the story, such as the sympathetic new member of Parliament Tony Benn or a pragmatic Winston Churchill. She also wanted secondary African characters — Khama’s influential sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto), for example — to be multidimensional and given their due.
Naledi “would be in the background of any other film, and I loved giving her that moment of expressing her identity and lineage and dignity,” says Asante.
A complex historical romance set mostly in Africa did not easily translate into a movie for a contemporary audience. “There was a lot of discussion about what people might care about, and what elements of this story resonated with modern audiences. It was a constant question all the way through the process, even before I came onboard,” Asante says. “I wanted to present the history and the politics in a relatable way. I could not get through more than 18 pages of the book in a day because it’s so dense and complicated [yet] I had to communicate that to an audience, and craft a love story, in a way that doesn’t patronize. I wanted to walk in the shoes of all the characters of consequence and try to see things from all points of view.”
Asante earned her insider/outsider perspective growing up in London with her Ghanaian-born parents. She began her career as a child actor on television. In her early 20s, she wrote and produced the Liverpool-set drama “Brothers and Sisters,” which ran for one season in 1998 and featured a then-unknown Oyelowo, whose own family had immigrated to England from Nigeria. Asante went on to write and direct her debut feature, “A Way of Life” (2004), about a struggling single mother who has a tragic encounter with a Turkish Muslim. Then came “Belle,” the true story of the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral and an enslaved African woman who’s raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in late-18th-century England.
“So often films set in Africa are told with an outsider perspective and so often the outsider is the protagonist,” says Oyelowo, who starred last year in Mira Nair’s Uganda-set “Queen of Katwe.” “This kind of story [in ‘A United Kingdom’] traditionally would have probably put Ruth and Seretse in a peripheral role and instead [centered on] some journalist who’s following them or on Tony Benn. It certainly would not be Seretse, even though he’s this prince who’s forgoing his kingdom in order to be with this woman. We need different and more diverse perspectives behind the camera for audiences not to be malnourished.”Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.