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A United Kingdom: A Critical Review

Publishing Date : 09 April, 2018

Author :

Keith Phetlhe ©

In today’s article, I focus on another film, A United Kingdom released in 2016 and maximising profits of about $13.8 million. Precisely, I want to contribute my viewpoints about this film especially in terms of how it is one fitting example of how filmmakers in the Western countries have depicted Botswana through film.

A United Kingdom is an adaptation of Michael Dutfield’s novel A Marriage of Inconvenience. It is based on a true historical account about Botswana’s first president and King of the Bangwato people, Seretse Khama, and his British wife, Ruth who comes from a working class family. Categorically, it is a documentary film written by an award winning British screenwriter Guy Hibbert, and directed by a noted British actress and director Amma Asante. This film cast David Oyelowo who plays Seretse Khama, and Rosamund Pike who plays Ruth Khama.


It is fitting to praise the film especially when it attempts to expose the atrocities of the British colonization in Botswana by advancing a narrative of how leaders such as Seretse showed resistance and contempt towards British imperialism in Serowe, Botswana at the time. However, this film still presents some serious problems if analyzed properly presenting inaccurate historical development and in the manner in which it pays attention to the narrative of colonialism.


Against this brief background, my aim is to problematize the film on the basis of the following: its lack of relevance to Botswana in representing the historical legacy of the country’s nation building amidst the reality of colonialism. Further, in the way it intentionally contorts and interprets cultural values of Batswana, it lacks sensitivity and attention to time Further, it reiterates a decontextualized account of how the Bangwato speak Setswana. In the film, the protagonist struggles to pronounce the word Kgotla the way Seretse as a royal would have pronounced it.


As one author from Botswana, Legodile Seganabeng put it, “I must however commend Vusi Kunene (Tshekedi Khama) and Terry Pheto (Naledi Khama) for pulling quite a stunning performance. I think they tried to save the film. I noticed that both Vusi and Terry pronounced the word Kgota quite properly, without the ‘l’, just as the Bangwato do. But our lead star who played Seretse kept on saying Kgotla and I highly doubt Seretse spoke that way.” This is interesting, I think, and my question lies on what could be the justification of the deliberate linguistic or dialectical appropriation on the speech of the protagonist.


The film does not use Setswana quite fairly and adequately nor have an option for the use of Setswana subtitles. Furthermore, A United Kingdom lacks cultural sensitivity to Botswana situation and experience in at least the following three ways: the film assumes any black male can assume the position of the protagonist as this is seen through the character of David Oyelowo. The film reiterates the inaccurate history that Botswana was not colonized but “protected” by the British.


The work that has been written by local historians from Botswana such as a Prof. Mgadla of the History department at the University of Botswana can be used to critique this historical misconception that is implicit in the film. Another incident I found unsettling derives a shot that depicts a young girl handing a letter to the commissioner in the Kgotla when the Bangwato were demanding to see their Kgosi. Given the time frame of the film (in the 40s), it would have been unlikely that children would be allowed to be present in that setting where elders discuss weighty societal issues. On the contrary, there is no such an occurrence in a British parliament and this accounts to the inconsistencies of representation.  


Could there be any reason other that the fact that the film although set in Botswana is clearly not necessarily designed to be consumed by the people of Botswana? This can explained by the fact that while there are many people from Botswana who could have easily played Seretse’s role better than David Oyelowo, those many unemployed youths who had turned up to audition as background actors, the film production team had already established their set and the desired market and ignored these masses. In other words, the historical set and narrative or story about Botswana is provided freely yet it makes a lot of money elsewhere in the western countries with absolutely no questions asked.


There is still a lot of policy work that must be done by Ministry of Arts and Culture in Botswana, specifically aimed at negotiating, monitoring and, determining the terms and conditions of film production companies with transparency. This is the only sure way of avoiding the continuation of global exploitation- if we ask the right questions and utilize our local expert opinion in Botswana; our culture which can be tangible and intangible, is equally subject to global exploitation- just like land, diamonds and other natural resources that have been getting stolen since colonialism.


Clearly, through this film, the important story about historic Botswana is presented in a decontextualized fashion for the consumption of its targeted western liberal audience and sales. In the process Botswana does not gain anything economically significant but a ‘stereotypical’ image across the western liberal audience who can only feel sorry but cannot do much to change or challenge the situation.



Given that we are now in the 21st century, there is an unparalleled need for us as a nation to make an earnest effort to present our images and refuse to be represented in a way that makes us passive consumers of the arts. This is important for Botswana and the rest of the African continent.

KEITH PHETLHE pursues a Ph.D in Comparative African Literature with a minor in Film Studies from Ohio University, College of Fine Arts. He does research on Postcolonial Theory, Translation, African Languages & Literatures Language Education and Film. kp406314@ohio.edu

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