A United Kingdom – Racism is a multi-colored affliction, but love can conquer all

It’s unfortunate that this excellent film seems to be relegated chiefly to the art house circuit, but my wife and I have looked forward to viewing this film after hearing good things from a family member who had seen it on the West Coast.

As a good history geek, I did quite a bit of research about the true story of Seretse and Ruth Khama and their controversial interracial marriage that threatened to divide his centuries-old kingdom of Bechuanaland.  I’m happy to say that they stayed quite faithful to the general narrative of this story.  I often complain when “Hollywood” (I include international film studios when I throw that term around) “messes” with many historical narratives.  When you honestly portray the truth of these “based on a true story” historical events, why should there be a need to fictionalize them!

This telling of the Khama’s story is winsomly accurate in portraying their meeting at a jazz-themed dance when he was in London studying to become his country’s future king.  We see Ruth’s family struggling to accept a black suitor for Ruth’s heart, but also see the same racial objections from his family and countrymen.  They marry in spite of the objection of individuals and the governments of England, Bechuanaland, and South Africa.  The marriage is tied up with Cold War politics as many of the nations in southern Africa are also rich in uranium.  In the early years of the atomic arms race, the conflicts of the bi-polar post-war world was the chief determinant of foreign policy decisions.  The Khama’s heretical marriage is a threat to the rising Republic of South Africa, it’s new policy of apartheid, and it’s all-important large deposits of the atomic mineral for Britain’s new atomic weapons stockpile.

If I were still teaching today, I would use a film like this to handle some of these issues, but also explain more of why the Cold War was the main focus of global politics in the early 1950s.  Most younger audiences are taught almost nothing of the Cold War other than that Joe McCarthy was an evil liar and the US was overthrowing governments at will in a mindless reaction to Soviet and Chinese communism.  By and large, the British opposition to Prince Khama’s marriage was about how it complicated issues with the neighboring racist regimes in South Africa and it’s neighbors, but the shunning of his white English bride was more based on race and class.  While Ruth’s birthing of Seretse’s daughter began to break the ice with her husband’s people, it’s these Cold War issues that seem most likely to either break up their marriage or prevent Seretse from ruling his country.

It’s an epic tale of love, courage, perseverance, and eventually one of democratic processes and the triumph of capitalism.  I once had a student from Botswana (today’s anglicized name for the country) and she explained to me that her country is the one of the most well off of the sub-Saharan nations.  The last 45 minutes of the film weaves in the sub-plot of Botswana’s mineral wealth and how to make sure that his poor country benefits from it and avoids the corruption and crony capitalism that had left so many other African countries with a small rich upper class and no middle class.

This is the one part of the story that I wish the filmmakers had time for: Seretse’s capitalist transformation of his nation into a black African nation with a burgeoning middle class and control of it’s own rich natural resources.  For an old capitalist like me, that’s an important lesson about changing the thoughts of the region.  It’s President Khama’s rejection of socialism and cronyism that results in the vibrant economy of today’s Botswana.

But that would be another less romantic and inspiring film for another time.  Both David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike give integrity and believability to their characters and seeing some photos of the Khamas during the credits support a sense that one has witnessed a fair portrayal of this unlikely couple.

Bring a few tissues and see this fine contribution to our modern culture.  You’ll feel like you have been witness to a story of two lives lived for purpose of blessing others.

Lion – a different take on an incredibly moving story

I passed on this film several times before my wife and I finally decided to take it in.  Let’s take a quick look at what the trailer promised:

An impoverished young boy in India named Saroo gets separated from his family and is eventually adopted by an upper class family in Australia, John and Sue Brierley.  In his early 20s, after a happy childhood and an education that puts him on the road to a lifetime of success, he gradually decides it’s important for him to locate his family in India and let them know he’s alive.

My reasons for pausing on seeing this film were personal.  I had witnessed elements to this story first hand when I experienced my former wife, who had been adopted at age 6, reconnecting with her birth family when she was in her 40s.  While it was a great relief to her aunt (whose phone call to the police many years ago had made her a ward of the state by separating her from her alcoholic and abusive father), it was an emotional threat to her adopted family.  That adoptive family had hoped that years of love, care, and embracing her as their own, would help her “forget” her painful past.  When adopting a child at 6, that’s unlikely.  The protagonist in this story was five, so I was mostly concerned about how the Australian parents would react to the young man’s need to reconnect.

My other reason was the fact that I am now, while not legally but in reality, an adoptive parent myself.  My brother and his wife adopted two toddlers from China in the mid-2000s.  She died in 2013, he in 2015, and my wife and I are now the “parents” (legal guardians) for these two adolescent girls.  We love the girls and believe that we are building a safe harbor of love and guidance for them.  We have introduced them to our extended family over the last few years and some of our children and grandchildren are embracing them as their own.  But it’s hard to tell how to best help them feel a sense of security when we are about the same age as their parents were when they passed.  Every time we cough or sniffle, the youngest asks if we are ok!  I understand her concern, and work hard to convince them that they have a family that will love them for decades to come. 

When it was clear that “Lion” was an obvious choice for our next film, my wife and I were a bit reluctant to engage in whatever the filmmakers felt were the key elements of this story.  So how did we like it?

First, we wept through much of it.  We both resisted the opportunity to look or talk to each other during the film because we were both afraid we would lose it.  I think most readers know how the film ends up.  It’s really not a spoiler to say that it’s a generally satisfactory ending to the film (along with some real footage of the people portrayed).  OUR concern was for the adoptive family.  I don’t say that because, in essence, we ARE an adoptive family, but because the easy emotional route for this kind of story is to simply have the viewer feel good because the protagonist gets what he wants and we feel release for him as the aggrieved party.  In the end, especially in today’s easy gratification culture, that’s probably the simplest and most satisfying result.  But it’s also the most selfish;  because it ignores the impact on the adoptive family.

In “Lion”, it’s not all sweetness and light in Australia.  The family also adopts a second Indian boy with implied severe mental and emotional challenges.  The family has the same problems as children mature that any family has.  The biggest challenge for the family in “Lion” is that the Brierleys have begun their parenting, as my wife and I say, in the “middle of the movie.”  It takes time and many many persistent attempts at communication to delve into what is going on inside a young person’s thoughts.  They often don’t want you to see what is going on, and it’s difficult to see how to best help them develop into a happy independent mature person when you don’t have a lot of past experiences to go on.  You also begin with a big “emotional bank account” with them when you adopt.  It requires patience, firmness, persistence, and consistent standards with children that you “take on” when you adopt them as children with memories of their parents, younger experiences, and certain established expectations.

To his credit, Saroo is very aware of what the Brierleys have done to turn his life from disaster to great promise.  He is very protective of them and walks carefully, and quietly, along his path of investigating the few facts he can count on in order to locate his Indian family.  It’s a well-written, beautifully acted story that treats all families involved with love but also doesn’t close it’s eyes to the difficulties involved in addressing the complications for Saroo, the Brierley’s, and his adoptive brother.  There is also an Australian girlfriend who has to balance her love for Saroo with his troubled search for his Indian family and his attempts to deal with his troubled brother.

We are glad we saw “Lion.”  It’s not all sweetness and light, and there are many moments in the film where things could have ended very badly, and more often do in these situations, but the themes it covers, and the way it portrays them, are well worth the 5 hanky experience in the watching.