A prince marries a 'foreigner'. The couple adjust to their new lives while surrounded by apprehensive family members and a hostile community.
This description could be for a documentary about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex - now better known as Harry and Meghan - in 2020. It's actually a write-up for the movie, A United Kingdom. It is based on a true story about the soon-to-be King of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Seretse Khama, who fell in love with and married white British woman, Ruth Williams while studying in London. Their story started in the 1940s and featured political drama, backstabbing, life in exile, diamonds and good old-fashioned romance.
David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike star as Seretse and Ruth, and in the first 15 minutes of the movie, their witty banter and dancing lulls the audience into thinking this could be a straightforward story of two star-crossed lovers. Or perhaps a more serious version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. with its cultural differences and aunties who insist on feeding everyone.
Instead, A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante, does not shy away from the bigotry, racism, politics and downright hatred that Seretse and Ruth had to battle when they choose to marry outside their community. Ruth’s sister cautions, “Father will hate him on sight. He’s cleverer than him and he’s black.” It is a given that Seretse’s race negates all his positive criteria and makes him an unsuitable suitor - even if he is actual royalty.
Clearly, British families in the 1940s were not too thrilled with their daughters becoming African queens. Similarly, Seretse’s family are outraged that he expects them to accept this foreign white woman as their queen. His uncle uses this as proof that Seretse is an unfit ruler and tries to usurp his authority.
Cultural clashes and power-hungry uncles are challenges across time and countries. But Seretse and Ruth are in a more difficult situation because as royalty, their lives are owned and somewhat dictated by the public. They have to deal with politics in Bechuanaland and Britain, yet seem ill-equipped to match the force of the empire.
The British government opposes their union to appease the neighbouring Government of South Africa who just introduced apartheid, which would among other things, outlaw marriage between whites and blacks. Both governments believe that this mixed Royal marriage would embolden the local African population, and meddle to keep Seretse and Ruth apart. It is a multiyear journey for them to be reunited in London and return to Bechuanaland as rulers with sovereign ownership over the land and its diamond mines.
This movie does a good job showing how Seretse in particular balances his individual interests, sense of duty and responsibilities. From the day he met Ruth, he made it clear that his duty was towards his people and this never stopped even when he was in exile and separated from his family. At the same time, he refused to be King if he could not have Ruth by his side. This was a rather bold move, but it paid off because it cemented them as an unbreakable unit.
It’s easy to see that people, including Seretse and Ruth’s own families, oppose their union because of their own racism and belief system. But why? What is it about interracial marriage that unearths nosy relatives? One possible explanation is that the dominant community believes that foreigners do not have the same sense of religion, culture, duty or responsibilities as them. Thus, both parties are a mismatch or worse, the foreigner will upend the dominant culture with their sly ways.
This can be solved by the foreigner’s willingness to respect and participate in everyday activities or really dial it up for special occasions. Ruth employs the first tactic when she works alongside the women of Bechuanaland to build wells and gained acceptance by the community.
In 21st-century Australia, interracial couples may not face the scale of issues Seretse and Ruth had, but they have their own modern-day hurdles. Most couples in documentary series Marry Me Marry My Family have already spent a few years introducing their partners to their culture, slowly easing them into it.
Nevertheless, there are others who encountered opposition and disappointment from their families because of their choice of partners. This is confronting to watch because it shows how maintaining individual and communities’ needs is a delicate balance with no possible winner.
Irrespective, the highlight of each episode is the lead-up to the wedding when hilarity ensues. Cultural differences surface at this stage because couples are trying to balance their own desires (e.g. a small wedding in the bush) and their families’ expectations (e.g. an elaborate 3-day event with 200 people).
The schisms are not always from the families. Even the couples sometimes find it difficult to articulate why a specific ritual means a lot to them when it seems so inconsequential to the other person. In one of the most interesting episodes, a Pagan Druid man tries to explain to his Jewish husband-to-be his vision of a traditional handfasting where the couple’s wrists are bound together. Sounds simple but it also includes dancing, hoops and ribbons which bewilders his partner.
This is when someone’s willingness to publicly embrace another culture really endears them to their in-laws, such as wearing an elaborate wedding outfit or participating in a traditional dance despite having zero dance moves. And when the evening ends, we wish the couple well and hope they have the same kind of happily ever after that Seretse and Ruth eventually had.
Season 2 of Marry Me Marry My Family is now at SBS On Demand:
Watch 'A United Kingdom'
Sunday 30 May, 1:30am on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Sunday 6 June, 6:25pm on SBS World Movies
Monday 7 June, 8:55am on SBS World Movies
Tuesday 8 June, 3:40am on SBS World Movies
Genre: Drama, History
Director: Amma Asante
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Jack Davenport