In 1947 London, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), an African law student, meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a clerk with Lloyds of London. Starting from a shared love of jazz the two soon fall in love and decide to marry.
“Based on a true story”, this is an engaging tale of love across the colour line, with real chemistry between the leads, but it falters as it aims to be something loftier. It is welcome that a black woman director is getting to tell stories about racism. Amma Asante also directed Belle (2013), a true story of racism and slavery in 18th century Britain — again with smoothed edges.
Seretse is a prince of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana). He has to return to take the throne, though his country is actually ruled by Britain as a “protectorate”. When Ruth eventually arrives she discovers that hotels have whites only signs up, though this turns out not to apply to royalty. No bar will serve black people alcohol.
Seretse’s family demand that he annuls the marriage as any wedding should have been arranged politically between families. The British establishment oppose it for reasons of empire. The couple had to marry in a registry office because the Bishop of London made sure they could not get a church. Once the couple were married and back in Africa the British exiled him from Bechuanaland and imposed direct rule.
Labour prime minister Clement Attlee is shown caving in to racist South Africa, which does not want a mixed race royal family on its borders as it entrenches Apartheid in law. This rather underestimates the level of imperial cynicism in London and the strict colour bar in the rest of the African empire. A young MP Tony Benn turns up as a voice of reason (indeed the real life couple named one of their children Anthony in his honour).
The story of prejudice overcome is moving, but it quickly slips into a heritage Africa of beautiful sunsets and rhino by the watering hole. Yes there is racism and a touch of diphtheria but otherwise little culture shock as Ruth just rolls up her sleeves and helps draw water at the well.
The film shows good honest people triumphing against the old system. We are shown no difference between the interests of the nation and the tribe or the royals and the peasants. The truth is that independent Botswana was able to develop relatively smoothly because of the discovery of diamonds and other minerals.
As a love story and a triumph of good over evil it works. The truth of generations of people fighting prejudice needs to be told, but it would be nice to have more of a feel of the muck and conflict.