Amma Asante directs romances, but according to her, she’s “never going to tell a pure love story.” That’s in part because her films like Belle and the newly out A United Kingdom focus on couples who engage in political acts simply by falling for one another. She’ll next do so in the WWII-set Where Hands Touch, but her latest casts David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as real-life couple Seretse and Ruth Khama, whose interracial relationship becomes the center of international controversy. The 1948 marriage between a prince of what was then Bechuanaland—who would ultimately go on to become the first president of Botswana—and a white Londoner is seen as a threat to many nations’ interests. The A.V. Club spoke with Asante at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September.
The A.V. Club: David Oyelowo came to you with Seretse’s story, right?
AA: Yeah. A producer called Justin Moore-Lewy, who had bought the rights to the book Colour Bar, gave it to David. David read the book and was like, “What? I’m the child of Africans, and I don’t know this story, and I was raised in Britain.” So it started there for him. We go back 18 years. I had written and produced a TV series, which I cast David in as his first piece out of drama school. So we go back a long way. So Selma happens, Belle happens, Gone Girl happens, and David says, “I think this is the time to tell this story.”
AVC: Why do you think people aren’t aware of this history?
AA: Well, I think that we are simply left out of history in that sense. It’s an uncomfortable period of history, I think, for Britain to remember, and to know that it treated a couple in this way is not necessarily a part of history that people are eager to teach in schools. But also as people of color, we’re left out of history. History is sort of told around us. We’re bystanders, we’re passive, we’re observers. We’re never the center of our history. This is a story that puts Seretse—yes, along with Ruth—but Seretse firmly at the center of his history. To really talk about this story, and teach this story, you have to teach that tribes were actually nations. You have to teach that chiefs were actually kings, with kingdoms. You have to teach that there was a structure that worked in Africa prior to colonialism. You have to teach that countries were colonized that were doing fine by themselves. And that’s uncomfortable.
AVC: How did you balance conveying the complicated realities of colonialism while also dramatizing this love story?
AA: I think that the only way to tell it, and the only way for me that it could’ve worked, is to draw from the experience of being bicultural—the experience of being raised by African parents who were raised in an African colony, with a father who stood in Independence Square, which is the name of the square in Accra, the day his country became independent and became the first sub-Saharan African country to do so. You can only tell it as someone who has that experience as well as the experience of growing up black and British. British being key, as well.
And so you can only really draw on the complexity of this story, I think, if you truly have an understanding of why the period that this story took place is important. That is, [you understood] that the seeds of African independence were being planted within Africa, at the same time as white supremacy was on the rise; that you understood Africans were not simply comfortable and okay with the situation that was being presented to them, that Africans were actively uncomfortable and having conversations about something that would translate to independence. So until you acknowledge that, there is no movie. Until you acknowledge the fact that Britain was placed in an extremely awkward position where the Labour government had been charged with putting the pieces of the country back together two years post-war, that there was optimism and hope, but [the country] required a good leader to take care of it and the responsibility that that required. Until you can tell the story of the Cold War and South Africa selling cheap gold to the U.K., which undermined the British pound. Unless you can do that—so you can weigh up that responsibility with the morality of allowing two consenting adults, whatever race they are, to be together; say, “Well, what would you do if you were in the shoes of the prime minister?”—there is no story, there’s no complexity. This is a very basic, simple story of two people falling in love, of different colors, and a guy called Canning [Jack Davenport] saying to them, “You cannot be together because this is something that’s very bad for South Africa.” It’s the complexity that makes this story a worthy story to be told. I wanted to make sure those factors were included in this story from the point of view of being bicultural. And understanding both sides, and what that means.
AVC: Both this film and Belle deal with romances and the ins and outs of the British political system. What interests you about these intersections?
AA: Well, I was raised, as I say, the daughter of parents that grew up in a colony, saw it come to independence. My father was a Pan-Africanist. He believed in the United States Of Africa, and he believed that that would be a positive future for Africa. He was an accountant, but he was generally a political man. What I loved about my dad, and we talked about this at his funeral, is that on a Sunday he would buy every newspaper because he wanted to read every point of view. I now see that inside me as a storyteller and as a filmmaker. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take a stance or I don’t take a view, but I’m interested in exploring other points of view. I’m interested in politics, and race is a very tangible way of expressing politics and exploring politics, because, first of all, race is very clear to define—and in terms of humanity, not just politics. You can take me and then you can take a blond white man with blue eyes, and you could say, “Fundamentally, they’re different.” And then I could talk to that white guy about the first time he lost someone close to his heart, and I could tell him about the first time I lost someone close to my heart, and I can guarantee you that at least 70 percent of the experienced feelings will be similar. We are human beings. There are important differences that mean we appreciate each other, not tolerate each other. But [race] creates this idea that there’s this massive difference. So when you use race as a means to explore politics, it’s a very interesting way of looking at difference, yet similarities.
Systems and societies are very interesting to me. You might have heard me say with Belle, I loved the world of Austen. I always loved the period pieces, but I was also very, very interested in the idea of the financial considerations that were informing that world, and yet we never really saw them at the same time. So behind the world that we would see would be a structure that was allowing it to exist. That’s the same with this world that Seretse and Ruth are in. On top of that, we had discussions when I first came on board: “We don’t really need so much of the politics; we should really be telling a love story.” And I said that, by very virtue of the fact that two people of a different race date each other, it’s political. Not because the two people who are dating each other want it to be, but because people make it political. People assume thoughts and processes about you that may have nothing to do with you whatsoever, but they make political assumptions and assertions about who you are based on your choice of partner. And we cannot avoid the politics in this story, because we are telling the story of an interracial relationship. There’s going to be politics involved. So it’s really interesting. It was a really interesting balancing act and dance that we had to do as to how much.
AVC: Seretse is exiled from his homeland, while Ruth is still there. Was there a challenge in telling a vast amount of this story while the members of your couple are apart?
AA: Well, I have to spend vast amounts of time living away from my husband while I make films, so that’s the first thing. I have a deep love for my husband, and so obviously I knew it was possible. I suppose that, for me, the way to look at it was that, the separation was going to intensify their love. If you unite a couple on a joint fight, the question is, “Does it unite them literally, or does it weaken their love?” And if it weakens their love, is that true love? And if this is true love, then you know they should be united by their separation. It’s their fight that brings them emotionally together while they’re physically separated, and so, though there’s physical separation, there is mental and emotional closeness. The interesting thing is they wanted to stop this couple from being together, and yet at the very point when they’re apart, the evidence of their love is born.
AVC: How did you approach filming the different locations?
AA: Beauty is very important to me in filmmaking, but beauty with credibility, obviously. I never wanted to paint London as ugly. It’s my hometown, and I adore my hometown. So I never wanted to paint it as ugly, but at the same time I wanted to see the differences in that other continent that’s so important to me, that I come from, which is Africa. Botswana is very different to the part of Africa where my parents came from. Right from the get-go, I wanted a director of photography who would love Africa as much as he would love London in the way that he would shoot it. Because I feel you can tell when a DP doesn’t love the country.
It’s important to show that this country is a small country but every country is precious and every country deserves to be looked upon with dignity and value and worth, and so I wanted to shoot it in a way that would say, “Yes, this is a very different world that she’s coming to.” And I wanted to use big, wide shots to really platform the idea that she was about to become the other. She was about to become a sort of lonely figure.
AVC: Last year’s Loving also deals with an interracial couple and how their private love becomes a public struggle, but it’s told from an American perspective. What do you think about telling these stories now?
AA: First of all, the U.S.A. is about to come out of a period where it’s just had its first black president. Over across in Britain, it’s decided that Brexit is the way that it wants to go. Some people are saying xenophobia has nothing to do with it, other people are saying it has everything to do with it—as with racism, both ways. The reality is that we’re in very politicized times. The complete antithesis of Obama is Trump. We are in very polarized times. People are taking a very strong view after a period of time, I think, where people fell asleep on politics to a certain extent.
AVC: Do you think that was true in Britain as well?
AA: Yes, I do. Absolutely. And I think during those times it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to reflect society. I mean, we do enjoy obviously taking people off into escapism as well, but we also want to make sure that we pick up on the energy. We’re also audience. We are also part of a world that is affected by culture and society and all of those things. So together with audiences, we pick up on what might become a zeitgeist. But you know when you’re in political times, you want to reflect those political times, and sometimes going back to our past is the best way to look at our present.
So these stories can and will be told. But also, we’re in a position where actually financiers are financing these stories, and there’s a financial aspect to it. I think the final aspect of this is social media, and the fact that voices can be galvanized. Where we were once disparate, we felt like solo, singular voices shouting into the wind: “Black women, we can make films, too!” Now suddenly, you say that on Twitter, and a thousand women will say, “Yes you can.” Literally. Hashtags have been created, like some of the very famous ones that we know, and we’re in a position where those galvanized voices cannot be ignored by the press. So it’s the filmmakers who are making the films, it’s the fact that people want to see more representation in terms of the characters who are in the films at the center of their own stories, it’s the fact that our politics are speaking to something quite interesting, and it’s the fact that we’re madly polarized at the moment. And that’s an interesting time to start exploring these matters.