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David Oyelowo On The Real 'United Kingdom' Marriage And Its Diplomatic Fallout

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike play real-life couple Seretse and Ruth Khama in <em>A United Kingdom</em>.
Stanislav Honzik
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike play real-life couple Seretse and Ruth Khama in A United Kingdom.

A young woman meets a prince and falls in love. That sounds like the start of an old fashioned fairy tale, but in the movie A United Kingdom it's the start of a diplomatic firestorm. The film tells the story of Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, who married in 1948. Williams was a typist in London; Khama was heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, or modern-day Botswana.

Their marriage angered nearby countries that were part of the British empire, including South Africa, which had just banned mixed marriage and was establishing apartheid. As a result, Khama, played by David Oyelowo, was forced to defend his marriage both internationally and at home. One scene shows him doing just that in front of a tribal council.

"We should be fighting for equality," he says. "That is where we should be focusing our minds, not on the wife I have chosen, who means you no harm, whose only apparent crime has been to fall in love with me — and mine to fall in love in with her. I cannot serve you without her by my side, but I cannot force you to accept this."

Oyelowo spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish.

Interview Highlights

On Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama's love story

The wonderful thing about Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama is even though they were from different countries, different cultures, even though they were living in a time period where there was very real and apparent opposition to a black man and a white woman being together, they fell in love with each other's soul[s]; they fell in love with each other's intellect; they fell in love with each other's love of jazz.

They managed somehow to cut across and past the racial divide and it was almost as if, once they had fallen in love and were reemerging from that haze, that suddenly the reality of what they had allowed themselves to feel made itself known in the shape not only of familial opposition — both from Ruth's family and Seretse's family — but governmentally.

After his marriage, the real Seretse Khama spent years in exile. He's shown here in 1956 with his wife, Ruth, and two of their children.
/ Associated Press
Associated Press
After his marriage, the real Seretse Khama spent years in exile. He's shown here in 1956 with his wife, Ruth, and two of their children.

On the political opposition to their marriage

Bechuanaland, as Botswana was called back then, was a protectorate of the United Kingdom, and so therefore Great Britain had a say in what was happening in Bechuanaland.

South Africa was in the midst of instituting apartheid. But also, Great Britain was beholden to South Africa because it needed South Africa's uranium to fight the Cold War; it needed South Africa's gold because the coffers were highly depleted after the second world war in the U.K. And South Africa was threatening to leave the commonwealth. So these two people getting married just across the border in Bechuanaland ... was something South Africa was just not going to allow, and South Africa had a lot of leverage.

On how people in Bechuanaland reacted to the marriage

The people of Bechuanaland ... had been subjected to apartheid-like behavior in their country. ... And here was their prince, who had been sent away to be educated, coming back with a white person who, in people in Bechuanaland's mind, was synonymous with intolerance and prejudice. And now you're proposing that this person is going to be our queen? So, you know, some of the opposition was very understandable, some of it was purely about the disgust at the thought of this black man and this white woman in bed together.

On the similarities between Khama and Martin Luther King Jr., who Oyelowo played in the film Selma

Both men had that attribute that I personally admire the most in human beings, which is an enormous capacity to love. And not just love in a thin, romantic Hollywood way — I'm talking about sacrificial love where you are prepared to put yourself on the line for others. And in the case of Dr. King, obviously, that was for a people; but with Seretse Khama, it was for both his wife and his people. And, you know, that's a real point of overlap that I could feel in my body playing both characters.

On whether, as an actor of color, he feels there are more roles for him now than there were before

I can't lie to you and say I'm buried under an avalanche of scripts. And the reason I say that is, look, the breadth of what you hope will be coming your way isn't necessarily there. So, you know, I'm not going to complain about it, I'm not going to grow bitter in a corner. I just have to develop things that I want to see myself do.

But having said that, you know, I asked Tom Cruise how he had managed to remain a movie star for over 30 years and he said to me, "David, create create create. After my very first movie, every film I've done I had a hand in bringing to fruition." Now, that's Tom Cruise. So if that's the rule for him, it can be the rule for me.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff