Amma Asante has completed three more films since her first, the remarkable A Way of Life, appeared in 2004. That film won prizes as a small independent production but struggled to find an audience outside festivals and a limited UK release. Belle in 2013 brought her to the attention of North American audiences and a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. A United Kingdom in 2016 continued her move towards international co-production and a bigger budget with two major stars in David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Each of these three films dealt with issues of identity in unusual circumstances and they proved difficult projects to get made despite help from the British Film Institute. The films were not without their critics but they did win prizes and some very enthusiastic audiences. Because Belle was a narrative that dealt with issues arising from the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century it proved the most attractive to African-American audiences. Amma Asante is a British-Ghanaian filmmaker who has moved from acting to scriptwriting and writing-directing. She has very clear ideas about the kinds of stories she wants to put on screen. She has proved determined to present these stories in the most accessible way she can and each of her films is strong in terms of cinematography, editing and art direction. Equally, she draws strong performances from well-chosen casts. I’ve been impressed by all the films but there are critics who find her stories too conventional and lacking in sophisticated ideas. I don’t accept those criticisms but they have been there and I must admit to my concerns prior to watching Where Hands Touch. I was forced to watch the film on VOD just three weeks after its UK release because I couldn’t find it locally in cinemas. The film was released first in North America in September 2018, seemingly for only 3 days in 103 cinemas. In the UK it opened on only 5 screens and the following week was on only one. The distributor, Spirit Entertainment is mainly known for DVD/Blu-ray and VOD. Could the film be as bad as these indicators of a lack of faith in cinema distribution suggest?
I’m relieved to say that many of the criticisms from North American viewers and some critics are either malicious or just silly. There have also been some very enthusiastic responses, but there is something about the film that perhaps doesn’t work. Nevertheless, given the subject she has tackled, this is another win for a brave filmmaker. The story of how the film came to be made and the historical basis is laid out on Amma Asante’s website. I’ll just include a brief summary here.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 included the Allied Occupation of the Rhineland which would last until 1930. The French Occupation Forces included 25,000 to 40,000 ‘colonial troops’. A significant proportion of these soldiers were Tirailleurs sénégalais, West Africans from various African territories in the French Empire. Some of these men married local German women, but many babies were born to unmarried mothers and these became known in Germany as the ‘Rhineland Bastards’. Wikipedia quotes the British historian Richard Evans who suggests that these children comprised 500-600 new ‘Black Germans’. Where Hands Touch focuses on a teenage girl who grows up as one of the 500+. An important point to note here is that the children of a married couple automatically took their father’s nationality, but those born ‘out of wedlock’ took their mother’s nationality. When the Nazis came to power and began to implement policies designed to secure the ‘racial purity’ of ‘Aryan Germany’, they at first had more problems with the Rhineland Bastards because they were German citizens. But after 1937 they adopted a policy of forced sterilisation to prevent any further ‘mixed marriages’ (not only involving Black youth but also Gypsies and others deemed ‘non-Aryan’).
Plot outline (no major spoilers)
Leyna Schlegel (Amandla Stenberg) is a bi-racial girl of 15 in 1944 and still living in the Rhineland when her mother hides her to prevent her arrest by agents who would no doubt find ways to force her sterilisation. Leyna and her white little step-brother Koen are then taken to Berlin where they must try to be ‘invisible’. Leyna will eventually find it impossible to stay in a Berlin school and instead will move into factory work with her mother. False papers keep her safe and she starts a relationship with a young man she meets. He’s in the Hitler Youth, just like every Aryan child, including Koen. In late 1944/early 1945 Berlin is a dangerous place and it’s inevitable that Leyna will be arrested at some point. What will happen to her?
In one sense, this is a family melodrama with an emphasis on the drama. It is also a romance, a very dangerous romance. But in many ways the ‘action’ in the narrative is of less importance than the complicated questions and difficulties that surround Leyna’s sense of who she is. What is this identity in Germany in 1945? Leyna maintains that she is German. She has no other Black friends and no role models (her father disappeared some time earlier, when she was an infant). When she visits Lutz (George MacKay) he plays her a Billie Holiday record from his father’s collection and shows her images of female jazz singers. Leyna is thrown by this, she has had no chance to think about her African roots or about an African diaspora in America. Lutz is looking forward to being sent to the Eastern front. He wants to fight and to protect his country. But both Leyna and Lutz will have to deal with the questions of what it means to be German when they find themselves caught up in questions about how Jews are being killed in the camps.
I think that the central problem with the film is that Amma Asante started to write a story when she discovered the ‘Rhineland Bastards’ and the more she discovered, the more historical facts and issues she tried to include. There is an interesting analysis of ‘Black Germans in Nazi Germany’ by Professor Eve Rosenhaft on the Amma Asante website and we can see the clever way in which Asante has woven into the narrative all the questions and problems discussed. But in wanting the film to speak to mainstream audiences, Amma Asante has also chosen to develop a romance. A focus on emotional relationships has been Asante’s strategy in each of her films and generally I think it works well, but in this case it feels as if there isn’t enough room for the romance itself as well as all the other issues. It may be because the project has been so long in the making. It should have been Amma Asante’s second film – she felt very driven by a search through what she saw as the neglected history of Black people in other parts of Europe. But she couldn’t raise the finance to make the film until she’d had the successes of Belle and A United Kingdom. I’m wondering now if when she finally got to make it, she tried too hard to explore all sides of the story? The film is already quite long at 122 minutes. It may be that it would have worked better as a TV serial like Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013).
There are two issues here that might explain the less than stellar reception the film has received. I’ve indicated Amma Asante’s ambition and the possible problems of structure and the sheer scale of the narrative. It isn’t the fault of the actors Amandla Stenberg, fresh from her triumph in The Hate U Give (US 2018) (a film under-appreciated in the UK, I think) is excellent and George Mackay works as well as he can with the script. Unfortunately for UK audiences there is the feeling that he’s been 19-20 for quite a long time now after roles in successful British pictures such as Sunshine on Leith (2013) and Pride (2014) – he was approaching 26 when he played Lutz. I think his efforts to ‘act younger’ make him possibly weaker as a character. The rest of the cast includes heavy-hitters such as Abbie Cornish as Leyna’s mother and Christopher Eccleston as the father of Lutz, an interesting character who fought in the 1914-18 war and who now wants to simply survive the war and protect his son, using his relatively senior position. Between the four central characters Asante does manage to represent a range of attitudes and feelings amongst ‘ordinary Germans’ in a very difficult situation. But this is something that audiences (still) might not be ready to accept. The history of the war and the Holocaust is too often reduced to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters and not conflicted characters who aren’t sure how and why they should act. I like the fact that the script makes clear that Lutz risks all for the romance – it is as dangerous for him as for Leyna.
This second issue about audiences and how they might understand, sympathise with or identify with characters is the most difficult challenge of all. There is also the decision to use English dialogue with the central characters mostly speaking without a noticeable accent, while some of the minor characters do. I’d be interested to see the film with a German cast or with a dubbed German soundtrack (as was the case with the recent Trautmann/The Keeper).
I hope my analysis hasn’t put you off wanting to watch this film. It’s an important piece of work and Amma Asante is a director who always produces interesting and valuable films. Finally, I wanted to mention the work of Remi Adefarasin, one of the few Black cinematographers in the UK. It’s good to see him as an industry veteran supporting Amma Asante and presenting Amandla Stenberg so beautifully on screen.
It’s difficult to write objectively and dispassionately about A United Kingdom. I invested a great deal emotionally in watching the film on its release in 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. For the film to be made at all and with a generous budget and good promotion is in itself a triumph. In fact, my only disappointment was in reading some of the mealy-mouthed and borderline offensive comments about the film submitted to IMDb. I hesitated about publishing my post but now, during something of a furore about Black History Month in the UK it seems appropriate to put my thoughts on record.
A United Kingdom presents a ‘real life story’ about a personal relationship which began in London in the late 1940s and which became the focal point of a story about international diplomacy, ‘End of Empire’ and racism in Southern Africa (and in the UK). While the film’s narrative is constructed mainly from historical facts, there are some instances of ‘artistic licence’ in scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s version of events. But I don’t think these departures and other slight inaccuracies in any way undermine the thrust of the film’s message. This is a mainstream feature melding elements of romance, adventure, biopic and political thriller with a satisfying dose of social comment. It is also a personal statement by Amma Asante, a British director of African descent, working with David Oyelowo, a British star actor, also of African heritage, both of whom recognised the importance of putting this story on screen. Add to this a passionate and committed performance by Rosamund Pike and here is a film to savour.
In 1947 the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in Southern Africa covered a large area of mainly arid plains (and desert areas) and mountains with a tiny population of under 150,000. As a ‘protectorate’ rather than a colony the local population had certain land rights vested in hereditary rulers, the most important of whom was Seretse Khama. In 1947 Seretse was studying to become a barrister in London while his uncle acted as regent after Seretse’s father died. In London, Seretse met and later married Ruth Williams, a clerical officer at Lloyds and the younger daughter of a lower middle-class family in South-East London. Ruth was a grammar school girl who had driven ambulances as a WAAF in the war. The newly-married couple faced a great deal of opposition. In London a de facto ‘colour bar’ existed in parts of society. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s uncle opposed the union because he thought it inappropriate for a future king and when Seretse and Ruth arrived in the country they faced a difficult future. The British government opposed the marriage because of the situation in Southern Africa. Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered locally by a British representative on the ground who was answerable to a Commissioner for Southern Africa – who was actually based in South Africa. South Africa had been a ‘dominion’ in the British Empire since 1910 and a sovereign state since 1931 as a constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General representing the British monarch. In 1948 the Nationalist Party of South Africa returned to power under D. F. Malan with the intention of building an apartheid state – institutionalising segregation and ‘separate development’ for racial groups. The British Government faced the dilemma of accommodating the apartheid state or losing any influence in South Africa at a time when UK foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War was designed to retain British military bases and allies overseas in a time of austerity. A United Kingdom‘s script neatly demonstrates the insidious nature of apartheid in showing a hotel in Bechuanaland which requires Black Africans to use the back door – with just the one exception of the king, Seretse Khama. There was a real danger of South Africa attempting to annex large parts of the protectorate. The requirement to keep the Nationalists ‘on side’ in the early 1950s meant that Seretse and Ruth Khama were exiled and forced to live in London for several years in the early 1950s.
The key to the political/diplomatic narrative of A United Kingdom is in the land rights vested in the Khama family’s history, so that when diamonds are discovered in the territory, Seretse Khama has a legal claim in the British courts. This would eventually lead to a valuable resource becoming available for the people of Bechuanaland which moved to a peaceful independence in 1966 as the Republic of Botswana – with Seretse Khama as its first President. Botswana has since become a stable state with high levels of ‘human development’. It’s fascinating to see the role of Labour MP Tony Benn in all of this (the Khamas named their second son ‘Tony’). Benn’s role in the film is based on historical fact, but I’m not sure about some of the other Westminster political events depicted. In researching this background I realised that there was a second similar ‘scandal’ in 1956 when the daughter of the senior Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps married a Ghanaian politician just before the country’s independence from the UK in 1957. So, A United Kingdom is actually representative of many stories associated with ‘End of Empire’ – many African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were in London in the late 1940s and 1950s.
But this is also a romance and a moving family story. I realise now that there is a great deal of similarity between A United Kingdom and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House released a few months later. Both films are proudly emotional and passionate about the ‘personal stories’ that represent the struggles of ‘colonial subjects’ in the dismantling of the British Empire. In both cases their directors are shining an important light on episodes of British foreign (and colonial) policy that very much need to be exposed. Both films should become staples in UK education about Empire history. What they also have in common is a criticism in terms of nitpicking about historical accuracy from the right and sometimes disdain from middle-class supporters who refuse to recognise the genre-based cinema of Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha. There are those who still dismiss popular cinema but both films need to be supported in placing ‘popular’ stories before us.