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Director Amma Asante on A United Kingdom

Amma Asante. Photo: Getty Images

Director Amma Asante is not yet a household name, but she should be, and with the upcoming release of A United Kingdom, she will be. Based on the true story of Seretse Khama, a prince from Botswana, and his English wife, Ruth Williams, this lush period piece is both a beautiful love story and the tale of the real-life ramifications of their marriage on the political landscape of postcolonial Africa. Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo star as the headstrong lovers whose marriage creates quite a stir in England and Botswana alike, both politically and personally. Seretse, who went on to become the first prime minister of Botswana, was expected to come back from his studies abroad, marry a local woman, and lead their tribe as per tradition; he was most certainly not expected to bring home a bride, much less an English, white one. Additionally, interracial marriage had just been made illegal under nearby South Africa’s apartheid.

Like Asante’s previous film Belle, which starred Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a biracial woman in the 18th century, A United Kingdom strikes a delicate balance between the political and the personal. It’s an elegant period piece, a crowd-pleasing love story, and a fascinating look at how one country’s political landscape was reshaped by that love.

A United Kingdom opens on February 10, 2017.

Can you talk a little bit about how you strike that balance between the political and the personal in your films?
I think I come from a place where, I think, the personal usually in some ways sits within the context of the political. Most relationships are political even if we don’t want them to be. What I mean by that is, when an interracial couple get together, even if they get together simply through the purity of their love, they are often faced with their relationship being politicized, because people project ideas onto them as to why they’ve chosen each other, what it all means, and it’s often deemed as a political statement. Political with a small p. Even if the couple doesn’t want it to be.

When I came to this project, there was this whole thing of, “It should just be a love story, and we should play down the politics, we should just play on the power of the love.” I said to the various men who were involved in the project that to me, this was a difficulty. You don’t really understand the power of that love unless you understand what it stood up to. Unless you understand the politics of what it stood up to. You know, three governments, two continents, as well as obviously the family pressure as well.

For me, I fought very hard in the story to make sure that there was a good strong balance of the political with the love story, but what I did make a commitment to was always making sure that we saw those politics through the prism of the love story.

What did you bring to this personally? I understand you’re in an interracial partnership as well, if I’m correct. Did this make it more personal for you?
In a way, I’ll be honest with you, no, it doesn’t. Interracial relationships, like relationships with two black people, or, you know, two white people, or my friends who are gay … I’m very lucky that I live in a world, my close world, my small world, which is quite balanced. An interracial relationship isn’t that much of a big deal to me. Had this film only been about that, I don’t know that I would have been interested in it. It’s what the couple had to stand up to that fascinates me. Personally, it was the politics of what they had to stand up to.

Both Belle and A United Kingdom have such fabulous costumes. Is that part of the attraction of doing a period piece, playing with the production design, and the beautiful costumes, and things like that?
It’s got to be in so many ways … I really embrace all sides of myself. I really embrace this intellectual side that is fascinated with the politics, of life with a capital L, and life with a small l. I really embrace that side, but I embrace the side of me that is completely artistic, and completely creative, and loves putting a color palette together, and loves seeing it all come together, first through the cinematography, and then through the production design, and then through the costumes.

The one thing that costume drama allows you to do is really explore that whole side of yourself. That whole vision coming to screen. When you can revisit the past, a past that you were not born to … I’ve never got the opportunity to see, but you can visit it and re-create it onscreen, it’s beautiful. There’s nothing better than seeing your actors step out of the car for the first time onto set. They’re in costume, and they step into the location that has been created specifically for your story, and suddenly a world evolves in front of you. You’re suddenly whisked back 50 years or so. It’s just incredible.

We acknowledge the artistry of production design and costume design, but it’s almost embarrassing to say, “I love the costumes, it was so beautiful.” You know, it’s sort of like, “No, we should be serious about the politics, the subtext and all this.” But there’s also a really lovely love story, and a lot of wonderful costumes that are just a joy to see.
As women, as well, we have that pressure as well to be serious, if we’re filmmakers, and not to talk about the other side of things. That’s why I kind of set out … I really embrace all parts of myself. They all exist, and I give them equal value. I like to try and make beautiful movies that will engage an audience. Particularly if we’re dealing with subjects a little bit tougher, or a little bit more challenging. To cloak them in some beauty is not always a bad thing.

I love that side of myself, and I loved collaborating with Jenny [Beavan]. She’s such a talented costume designer, as was my costume designer on Belle as well. I learned from them, and we share ideas, and we grow. I love how I always present them with a palette, they never push back my palette, they always find a way to achieve it in the most stylish way possible. They’re a joy to work with. On top of that, Jenny is just a blast as a human being. She’s just a brilliant human being to be around, who doesn’t take herself too seriously. I love her.

Do you think the United Kingdom is more progressive than America when it comes to the film industry, or do you think that Hollywood is making strides when it comes to representation behind and in front of the camera?
I think we’re in equal positions. I think we’re tied at the moment. I think we have been probably struggling for a lot longer to create a more level playing field, but I think that America has taken — is trying to take some big leaps at this moment in time. We’ve moved slowly. America has tried to take some big leaps, including what the Academy did last year [with] a more rich and diverse set of new members … Our statistics show very similar numbers to yours, in terms of women directors, in terms of women of color. You may be a tiny bit ahead of us, just simply by virtue of the fact that you have Hollywood here in America, and you have the biggest and most powerful filmmaking environment and industry, but we’re pretty much equal. Both countries need to do better.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Director Amma Asante on A United Kingdom