In A United Kingdom, David Oyelowo plays the Prince of Bechuanaland/Botswana, Seretse Khama, who marries the white English woman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and finds himself struggling against the English, South African, and Bechuanaland governments. In fact, while Williams is pregnant, the two face a ban where the couple will be kept continents apart from each other for five years. To hear more about the passion project of Oyelowo’s, Christian Cinema caught up with the actor to discuss race, faith, politics, and love in twentieth century England and twenty-first century America.
Oyelowo admitted that some of the reasons for his interest in the story were obvious, given that he is black and his wife Jessica is white. But as a person of African descent, Oyelowo said that the character or heart of Seretse mattered to him, too. “It’s rare to see a black man like Seretse who is also a prince and has a great capacity for loving his wife, his family, his country, and his community portrayed in film. Above and beyond race, the film is about how love can overcome the differences between people. I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to stories about race - but I am drawn to stories about our capacity to overcome all of the conflict we face.”
For Oyelowo, who has portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, this was a chance to represent English and African leadership. He pointed to a speech when Seretse appeals to his people, explaining how he needs and loves his wife, and how much he loves his country, too. It is a powerful example of the integrated life Oyelowo strives for himself, loving God, his family, and his country.
On screen, Pike and Oyelowo have a natural, comfortable chemistry as they work through the issues forced upon them by governments who are seeking to control money, power, and even human interracial relationships. But Oyelowo found a kindred spirit in Pike that he believed allowed them an easier onscreen dynamic.
“The reason why we had that level of comfort is because we both felt passionate about the people we were portraying, but also about the sacrificial love that they shared,” the actor remembered. “We often see movies where they have lust wrapped up in the guise of love - but true love is sacrificial. Rosamund and I were very connected to that part of these characters. We wanted to do well by them in portraying them.”
In each conversation about love and the roles he plays, Oyelowo’s faith comes transparently forward, and A United Kingdom was no different. Here, faith is not spoken of but rather shown, in the form of real love, he explained.
“I think that love in its truest form is sacrificial, and I’ve learned that as a Christian based on what Jesus did on the cross for me. It wasn’t just sacrifice that was conditional but it was unconditional. There was nothing to pay back,” he shared.
“There were several moments when Seretse and Ruth could have turned away because of how hard it was for them but they were so invested in the other person. For me as a Christian, that really speaks to me. The film also shows us a married couple who is in love when so often it’s the portrayal of marriage is a kind of prison, that excitement lies elsewhere. This couple connects emotionally and intellectually, and their love has what is demonstrated in the Bible as what is advocated, that two people’s souls, two people’s spirits, meet.”
The film also raises questions about government in addition to its exploration of love and race. Oyelowo highlighted the banishment Seretse endured, as the government fabricated reasons to keep the two apart. But he mentioned the various pressures that each government faced, and the way that those pressures still exist internally and externally.
“South Africa really putting pressure on England to have the marriage annulled because of apartheid,” Oyelowo said, reflecting on the film. “Here in America, what the government is doing - and the actual reasons for which they are doing versus the hidden reasons - are things we need to be vigilant about. Once Seretse became the first democratically elected president, he instituted a different kind of government. Botswana is the only place in the world that considers itself post-racial. I’m grateful that we have an infrastructure in America that has checks and balances that allows for freedom of speech and grievances to be heard.”
As the conversation closed, Oyelowo reflected back on the impact that Selma had and continues to have on the creation of films about race and relationships. When he and I first spoke, he had been snubbed by the Oscars for his portrayal of King, and been one of the films referenced in the campaign #OscarsSoWhite. The actor humbly and proudly looked back at the snub, while also pointing toward a future when these issues would be a memory.
“I’m proud that Selma helped instigate that. It would have been nice to have had our film to be acknowledged by the Academy; I thought Ava (DuVernay) had done a wonderful job directing,” Oyelowo admitted. “If that film helped raise awareness about what is happening, about who gets to be in films and gets represented, that is what should happen.
“We have a better year this year than we have had in two years. I am cautiously optimistic because the infrastructure is still in place but there’s a greater awareness in the public and people in the industry to call out when they see things unjustly lopsided. It’s still a cause of concern for me personally who has worked with terrific female directors, that no female directors have been nominated. Only four women have ever been nominated and only one has won, and women represent fifty-one percent of our population. I think there’s still a great amount of work to be done.”
With projects like A United Kingdom, pushing for equality and freedom, Oyelowo has dedicated his career to making a difference, for love, for family, and for faith.