It is the greatest African love story the world probably does not know, and British director Amma Asante has brought it to life with the help of South African actors. Terry Pheto and Abena Ayivor, who star in A United Kingdom, have praised Asante for giving life to the story.
Pheto said: “It’s a unique story. The world will finally see another side of Africa.”
A United Kingdom, a biographical romantic drama, tells the story of the forbidden love between Seretse Khama, the king of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and English insurance clerk Ruth Williams.
Seretse, played by David Oyelowo, and Ruth, played by Rosamund Pike, married in 1948 despite fierce opposition from their families and the British and South African governments.
At the time, Bechuanaland was a protectorate under British rule since the 1880s and South Africa had just enforced its apartheid policies.
The film, which premieres in Botswana this week as the kingdom celebrates 50 years of independence, also stars Generations actor Vusi Kunene.
Pheto plays Seretse’s sister, Naledi Khama – who died earlier this year.
Former Generations actors Kunene and Ayivor play Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, and his wife, Ella.
Ayivor said: “It was amazing and interesting, because a lot of stories don’t tell the African side.
“It’s an African story told by a black person and so it comes from a place of real understanding. As black people we don’t often get the budget to tell our stories, so to get to do that with a Hollywood budget is great.”
For Pheto and Ayivor it was “an honour” to work with award-winning director Asante, and actors Oyelowo and Pike. But what made filming in Botswana extra special was filming in Seretse’s home.
Ayivor said: “Filming in Seretse’s home, you feel the history, you feel the importance and the weight of history. It made it more real and added a unique dynamic.”
With this also came the pressure of playing real characters and telling this unique African story.
Ayivor said it was important for her to portray Ella with sincerity and respect.
Pheto said: “There is always pressure with a new project but with a true story, [it’s] added.”
A United Kingdom had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month and will open the London Film Festival next week before its release in UK cinemas in November.
The film will be released in cinemas in South Africa in December.