Movie Review: A United Kingdom – The Love That Defied an Empire

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

Just as my daughters have Australian ancestry on my dad’s side of the family, they also have ancestors from South Africa on their paternal side. Their grandmother grew up in Serowe, the same town as Botswana’s founding father. So to get the girls in touch with their roots, (and for a trip down memory lane for Hazel), we recently saw the epic love story of an African Prince, Seretse Khama (chief of the Bamangwato people, grandson of Khama III, their king), and an English woman, Ruth Williams, in the stunning film A United Kingdom.

It is an unashamed, sweeping biopic of love against all odds. A United Kingdom tells the true story of the Khama’s much maligned, highly publicised marriage in London in 1948 and its dire consequences; not only for the couple personally, but also around the political fallout for the British Empire and South African government, which made it even more powerful and poignant.

This film blew me away. The acting felt so real and visceral, David Oyelowo (whose onscreen presence is mesmerising), and Rosamund Pike as his strong-willed English rose, were superb as the Khamas. The script, the cinematography, the way the story was portrayed and directed by Amma Asante so sensitively and closely to the facts contributed to an authentic, immersive and emotional experience.

I could see Hazel was in tears also at the end of the movie. She had met Seretse and Ruth Khama when she was a young girl growing up in Serowe, only a year or so older than my eldest daughter Emily, now aged 9. The Khamas were friends with her parents and had come to visit the Palmer family at their farm in Serowe. Hazel was told not to stare at them, as mixed race couples were rare in those days.

Emily and Ruby’s great-grandparents (the Palmers) had welcomed the couple with a gift when they first arrived in Seretse’s homeland as newlyweds, a hamper of fresh fruit and vegetables grown on their farm. It was an act of kindness that the Khamas obviously appreciated after such a hostile reception from his uncle Tshekedi – who was acting as regent.

Seretse Khama, Prince of Bechuanaland (Botswana), and his white, bride, Ruth Williams, faced overwhelming opposition to their union from her family, his uncle, the British Empire and the South African government.

Seretse and Ruth Khama in Serowe

Seretse and Ruth Khama in Serowe

Hazel recognised many of the views in the vast, scenic shots of Botswana around Serowe. Her parents are buried in the same cemetery as the Khamas on Memorial Hill, which overlooks Serowe.

Although Emily kept whispering in my ear that she was bored in the early part of the film she became more engrossed as it went on. I felt it was important for her to appreciate what love means regardless of race, and to understand the deep racial divisions in society at that time.

I’ve never felt so ashamed to be British as I sat and watched how the Labour government at the time, (and then the following Conservative one) waged war with extreme prejudice and staggering self-interest on a couple whose only sin was to love each other. Culturally they couldn’t have been born further apart, but spiritually they were perfectly aligned.

It’s one thing to face personal attack for your choice of partner, but to remain strong in the face of two nations’ bullying is nothing short of a miracle. Seretse was prepared to give up his destiny as King of Botswana in order to be with Ruth. What an example of love and integrity to set your people!

He makes a magnificent speech at the beginning of the film, imploring and winning over his people in a meeting of the Kgotla (a traditional place of tribal meetings).  He comes across as noble, honest, and a fine orator, only concerned with the welfare of his people and not with the petty discrimination of colour. He is well educated (with a degree in law from Balliol College in Oxford), compassionate, smart and strong, all attributes which are tested to the limit as their story unfolds.

Meanwhile, on his travels around the tribal lands Seretse discovers an American mining company has started prospecting for precious gems. He knows that a large diamond find would allow much needed investment and infrastructure for his people, providing he can leverage the discovery ahead of the British.

Seretse travels to the UK to plead his case with the British government as his grandfather had previously been granted a protectorate for Bechuanaland by Queen Victoria. However, Canning tells him rather smugly that instead of recognising him as the rightful King of Bechuanaland the British government has instead exiled him from his homeland.

The couple are distraught as Ruth has to give birth alone in Africa whilst Seretse seeks assistance from various lawyers and human rights activists to further his cause in London.

Jack Davenport is great as the overbearing Alistair Canning, the British commissioner to South Africa, who is underhand and does his best to obfuscate their situation at every turn. He uses the excuse that Seretse’s uncle has requested their intervention and he also hides the true outcome of a report into Seretse’s ability to rule Botswana.

“It should now be our intention to try to retrieve what we can of our past. We should write our own history books to prove that we did have a past, and that it was a past that was just as worth writing and learning about as any other. We must do this for the simple reason that a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.”

~ Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, speech at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, 15 May 1970, as quoted in the Botswana Daily News, 19 May 1970.

Meanwhile Ruth has stoically continued her life at their African home, helping the women and getting to know the people. She has also made a televised appeal to the British government pleading for Seretse to be allowed to return to his homeland, but to no avail.

During their time apart, through her actions, Ruth has endeared herself to Seretse’s tribe.

Eventually Ruth returns to England with their baby daughter and the pair fight against the injustice of an empire with a vested interest in uranium mining and the political stability of South Africa under the control of the disgusting apartheid regime.

The film aroused intense anger in me for the majority of the viewing time, along with sadness, admiration, respect and the vicarious joy of the Khamas.

1956, Croydon, Surrey, England, UK --- Seretse Khama - Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

1956, Croydon, Surrey, England, UK – Seretse Khama – Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Eventually their plight is heard in court, where Seretse gives up his right to rule as King. The couple ask for permission to travel to Bechuanaland on a trip to put some family affairs in order, and whilst there he and his uncle make reparations and heal their rift. In another stirring speech, Seretse Khama calls for independence and the country’s first democratic elections.

Behind the scenes featurette:

From that moment on their personal destiny and that of Botswana begins to be fulfilled. History shows that Seretse Khama was a great leader as the country’s first president, overseeing rapid economic growth and prosperity as well as social reforms. Ruth continued with her humanitarian work and bore him four children, and their second child (first son), Ian Khama, is the fourth and current president of Botswana.

Statue of Sir Seretse Khama outside the Parliament building in Botswana.

Statue of Sir Seretse Khama outside the Parliament building in Botswana.

It really says something when Nelson Mandela himself was inspired by Seretse and Ruth Khama and what they achieved in Botswana as his vision for what could be done in South Africa.

To watch a beautifully made film that is based on actual events that inspires us to follow our hearts, whether it be for love, or any other goal or dream, no matter the obstacles, is worthy of a couple of hours of your time.  It’s a must see in my humble opinion…

Film critic Mark Kermode also gives his stamp of approval:

It was a love story that I knew nothing of, but it’s not very often that our personal family history coincides with a nation’s history, and I do believe the film does them justice.

“We are convinced that there is justification for all the races that have been brought together in this part of Africa, by the circumstances of history, to live together in peace and harmony, for they have no other home but Southern Africa. Here we will have to learn how to share aspirations and hopes as one people, united by a common belief in the unity of the human race. Here rests our past, our present, and, most importantly of all, our future.”

~ Sir Seretse Khama (speech at the national stadium on the 10th anniversary of independence in 1976.)

How Purpose and Passion can Transform Life from the Mediocre to the Meaningful

“What is the meaning of life? To be happy and useful. ~ Dalai Lama

Ivan Aivazovsky -maritime artDo you truly know what floats your boat? John F. Kennedy wisely stated that a rising tide lifts all boats. Forget that he was talking about the economy. I’m talking about the sea of life, the ocean of experience. Is your mast set to wind? Is your course charted? Or is your vessel rudderless? It won’t all be plain sailing, but you’ll have many adventures navigating from port to port. Before you know it you will have circumnavigated the globe. Okay, okay, enough of the nautical lingo…

Are you aligned with your purpose in life? We can look at many examples of extraordinary people who changed the world by simply following their dream. Individuals who stayed the course, no matter the obstacles they faced.

What will keep you going regardless of success or failure? Inner peace and happiness comes from being true to your vision and values. To inspire your fellow human beings and be the tide that raises other ships, your purpose has to be something other than the quest for money, endless consumerism or a new pair of shoes. I might regret saying that last part!

It has to be a deeply felt cause that is bigger than us as individuals. Without that inner resolve there is no motivation to get out of bed in the morning.

VF quote on happinessDuring my life I’ve done jobs I absolutely hated. Luckily, they were only for relatively brief spells. I found myself wishing away my life, desperate to get to the weekend. I could really relate to philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s words, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” How soul destroying it is to feel that your existence counts for nothing, that you do not matter. Do you know what you were put on this earth to do? Fortunate are those who have shaken free from the clutches of apathy, and are expressing their talents and passion in the world.

Viktor Frankl experienced more trauma in his life than most of us could ever imagine, or would ever face, and yet he went on to write a moving and inspiring lesson for us all, in his ground breaking 1946 book: Man’s Search for Meaning.

For me, when I look at the achievements of people past and present, such as Viktor Frankl, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Beryl Markham, Emily Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Madam Curie, Helen Keller, Joan of Arc, Ludwig van Beethoven, Daniel Barenboim, William Shakespeare, Mother Theresa, Walt Disney and many more than I could possibly mention, whose lives were, and are challenging, but through being true to their purpose left their legacy in the annals of time. We ordinary mortals can achieve our success according to our own values and dreams.

You don’t have to be famous to make a difference. You don’t have to have a world changing vision. You just have to know who you are, where you’re going and have a plan to get there. Sounds simple right?

Five pointers to help you find your passion and purpose:

  1. Pay attention to how you spend your time. Chances are, if you do something a lot it means something to you. Awareness creates choice.
  2. What knowledge can you share? What activities are you good at and enjoy, that you could make a living from or help others master?
  3. Write a list of your values, brain storm, then make a short list of your top 10 values and see where they fit into your life. What causes are close to your heart? How can you get more involved?
  4. Delve into your beliefs. What beliefs do you hold around money, work, success, health, and relationships? Be honest with yourself, and label each one as being either resourceful to you or a hindrance to you. How many of them are long buried self-sabotaging beliefs creating negative self-talk? Beliefs are powerful, and we always find ways to prove them, whether they are ‘true’ or not. It makes sense to have well-adjusted healthy beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. It’s time to shake off years of indoctrination and remove the glass ceiling.
  5. What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail? I know it’s a provocative question, but as Einstein stated, “Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts.” He also said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”


There are really only four things that we have complete control over in our lives. How we feel, how we behave, the people and situations we attract to ourselves, and the meanings we assign to all of the above, our internal representations of our lives.

What Makes Life Meaningful: Michael Steger at TEDxCSU:

A recent Stanford research project explored the key differences between lives of happiness and meaningfulness. The meaningful life is a road worth traveling.

Feeling happy doesn’t mean our lives are easy, or perfect. We often feel sadness and joy along our journey, indeed, a whole range of emotions, that’s just the nature of life. But true purpose keeps us on course, gives us that inner peace that we are contributing to the world in our own unique way. Each of us has the ability to touch lives that no-one else can. Every day you are happy is a gift to the world. So in order to be altruistic you also need to be selfish. Indulge in what you love, and give it away…

PhotoFunia-time and tideWe all have the same time given to us. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, 31,536,000 in a year, and just over 2.2 billion seconds in a seventy year lifespan. None of us knows when our personal clock will stop ticking. Time is precious.

How will you spend yours?