Feel-good movies about race relations are an oxymoron, and yet Hollywood just keeps churning them out, doesn’t it? They’re easy to pick out by virtue of always having one “Good White Person” amidst all the “Bad White People.” You know, someone kind and so ahead of their time that they don’t even see color and they’ve always thought racism was bad, see, they just needed a push to stand up to their “Bad White Friends.” White viewers watch these movies, and we identify with the “Good White Protagonist,” of course. Because we totally would have been Kevin Costner beating down the sign in “Hidden Figures” if we had been alive at that time, and we definitely wouldn’t have been complicit in the institutionally-mandated racism.
Yeah, I didn’t like “A United Kingdom” very much. Directed by Amma Asante (“Belle”), the film tells the real-life story of Seretse (David Oyelowo, “Selma”) and Ruth Khama (Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”), a biracial couple grappling with British imperialism in the late 1940s. Seretse is the heir to the throne of the African country Bechuanaland (now Botswana). He meets Ruth, a British secretary, while in law school in London. The two fall in love and decide to get married, a choice which threatens the diplomatic security of Bechuanaland, a British protectorate state. They receive opposition from both the British government and Seretse’s tribe back home, who see Ruth as an extension of Britain’s imperialist arm, trying to co-opt their years of tradition and national pride. The film details the couple’s attempts to become accepted by the people of Bechuanaland while grappling with the diplomatic nonsense the British government continually throws at them.
I’m sure that the real life Seretse and Ruth Khama were absolutely incredible, wildly interesting people. They led their country to independence, overcame horrible intolerance and devoted their lives to serving their people. Their film counterparts, however, have all the personality of some very pretty blocks of wood. Oyelowo and Pike are both wonderful, charismatic actors, but they’re not given very much to work with here, as their characters are simple bastions of pure good, free of any flaws or conflicts. They know exactly what they want secure in the knowledge that what they want is just right. They don’t grow or change at all throughout the film, because they are both perfect to begin with, without any second thoughts or excuses. Needless to say, watching perfect people be perfect together isn’t very interesting.
What is interesting is how much the film downplays the actual romance between the two. There’s a notable lack of chemistry between the leads, a fact which isn’t helped by the movie’s odd pacing that all but skips their initial courtship. They kiss for the first time with no sparks, and their wedding night is perhaps the least sexy sex scene since maybe the one in “Gone Girl” — and someone was literally murdered in that scene. We’re supposed to believe their love is strong enough for both of them to risk their entire families and homes for each other, but I don’t buy it for a second.
But perhaps the most offensive thing about “A United Kingdom” is the fact that it’s simply littered with “Good White People.” In fact, the white people are so good that most of the actual intolerance we see is on the part of the citizens of Bechuanaland towards Ruth. It’s really baffling for a movie that is quite literally about colonialism to frame her as the victim of some sort of nonsense reverse racism. The white disgust for Seretse and Ruth’s relationship is only spoken of, hinted even — but never shown.
I really wanted this movie to be excellent. It’s about genuinely important, groundbreaking people who made a significant impact on the world. They deserve to have their story told, and told well. They didn’t deserve a schmaltzy, feel-good, watered down version of what happened, too boring to be a good love story, and too scared of offending anyone to be a thoughtful meditation on the history. It leaves the viewer neither empowered nor inspired nor angered. “A United Kingdom” makes you feel nothing at all.