A man meets a woman at a missionary society dance. They bond over a shared love of jazz, fall in love and he proposes marriage. It sounds like the beginning of a pretty conventional love story, but in the case of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams Khama, the otherwise typical meet-cute put them at the center of a struggle between nations, with economic and political ramifications that would change the course of history far beyond the walls of the home they shared.
In A United Kingdom, David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike play the real-life lovers, who married in London in 1948. As Khama, Oyelowo is the son of the chief of the Bamangwato people in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland—later to become Botswana under his leadership—who has a responsibility to return home and lead his people after he’s finished his studies at Oxford. Pike’s Williams (later Khama), meanwhile, is a British office clerk. Though the politics of their love story begin with discomfort over the fact of their different races, the stakes are elevated by South Africa’s recent ban on interracial marriage and subsequent pressure on its neighboring country not to contradict its own apartheid policies, and the interest of the British government, deeply in debt after World War II, in access to cheap South African gold.
Director Amma Asante signed onto the project at the urging of Oyelowo, who had become fascinated with the story after reading Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar, upon which the script would later be based. Asante, who was born in London but whose father’s childhood was characterized by watching his homeland, the British colony Gold Coast, become the independent nation of Ghana, was drawn to a story set against an African nation gaining its independence. And the movie is, like her other work, an exploration of identity: her 2014 drama Belle told the true story of a mixed-race woman in an aristocratic British family in the late 1700s, and her next movie, Where Hands Touch, centers on a mixed-race teenaged girl in 1940s Germany who falls for a member of the Hitler Youth.
In the clip above, Oyelowo and Pike demonstrate the careful balance of a love that is assured but heavy with the burden of challenges to come. After a successful run at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, A United Kingdom hits theaters across the U.S. on Feb. 10.