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.