Two Serious New Features on Race Relations, Plus a Cartoon Figure for Leavening
‘A United Kingdom’
A surprise hit of the movie season has been “Hidden Figures,” a modestly budgeted but uplifting picture that tells a 1960s true story of a victory over racial repression whose actual background few knew about. Now, on its heels, comes a modestly budgeted yet uplifting movie that tells a 1940s true story of a victory over racism which almost nobody knows about. The new release is the moving “A United Kingdom” (Rated PG-13 and running 111 minutes, the film is now in DC area theaters.)
The story turns on the leadership struggle of Seretse Khama, the prince of Bechuanaland (now independent Botswana), a British protectorate surrounded by South Africa. It is 1947 and Khama (David Oyelowo), studying law at Oxford, is informed by his regent uncle that he must return to lead his people. Khama, however, becomes thoroughly smitten by a white English office worker, Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). They bond over jazz and marry after a sweet courtship.
Though scorned by her own family, Ruth agrees to venture to a country she has never known as its newly minted queen. Khama’s biracial marriage also does not sit well with the people back in the Bechuanaland capital, Serowe. His own family, including Uncle Tsekedi (Vusi Kunene) and his younger sister, Naledi (Terry Pheto), are outraged, as are the local British authorities in the protectorate.
Complications ensue when Uncle Tsekedi demands an annulment of the marriage and disowns Seretse, while local authority Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton) and Sir Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport), the crown representative in the Union of South Africa, look to frustrate Khama’s rule. After Ruth becomes pregnant, Seretse returns to London to make his case, but he is held there by British authorities, then sensitive to protecting their mineral rights before the new South African apartheid regime, which forbids mixed-race unions. At home, Ruth slowly gains local sympathy and wins over Naledi, while Khama boldly challenges his exile by returning to Serowe and advocates local rule, a prelude to his historic triumph as the first president of an independent Botswana.
David Oyelowo, who pushed this project for some time, is the glue that holds this film together. He’s using a different accent (he is splendid with accents), and the backdrop could hardly be more different, but in spirit the part reflects his stirring role as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma” (2014), being almost as inspiring. Also in the inspiring vein, he matches his recent appearance in “Queen of Katwe” as a Ugandan teacher.
Here Oyelowo is dignified in enduring racial snubs and is rightly passionate when evoking home rule for his Bangwato people. He also proves to be charming and gallant in winning his lady during their London courtship.
Rosamund Pike (last seen by filmgoers as a schemer in “Gone Girl”) is appealing as the naive Ruth, trying to adjust to her newfound environment, but the role is mainly reactive and the actress doesn’t have that much to do, though she is very good at showing apprehension. Davenport is absolutely dastardly as the vile Sir Alastair, swirling his gin-and-tonic while demeaning Khama at every turn. All he lacks is a twirly mustache. South African actress Terry Pheto (“Tsotsi”) convincingly brings trepidation then empathy in the role of Naledi.
In her third feature, Ghanaian-English director Amma Asante, who helmed the well-received “Belle” in 2013, gets full marks for the smooth handling of her bicultural cast and for shooting on location in the real Botswana. The flat plains of its carrot-colored soil add much authenticity in grounding “A United Kingdom,” a heartfelt piece of history that’s good to remember.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’
This striking documentary channels the life and times of James Baldwin through offering his prescient, still relevant words about US race relations. The text of the film is based on Baldwin’s memories and musings on the lives of three African-American giants murdered in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The creator of this homage is Haitian director Raoul Peck, who frames Baldwin’s reminiscences triggered by a letter and outline he wrote to an editor in 1979, contemplating an unfinished book about the three fallen leaders. Peck said he “envisions the book James Baldwin never finished,” and in homage the film uses the credit “written by James Baldwin”.
That framing premise is used throughout, with quotes from Baldwin’s writings read by Samuel L. Jackson standing in for the writer. More telling, though, are numerous clips of Baldwin himself in television and film images, speaking in his distinctive, preacher-trained style, graced by a precise and practiced cadence, though often delivering fiery language, He is particularly eloquent on the theme of the black man in a white world during a 1965 speech to the Cambridge (England) Union.
Peck himself, in describing how he fashioned the work, said: “Baldwin gave me a voice, gave me the words, gave me the rhetoric. All I knew through instinct or through experience, Baldwin gave it a name and a shape. I had all the intellectual weapons I needed.”
Baldwin’s growing up is described, with movies being particularly influential, and he comments on his relationships with the three leaders and his whereabouts when he heard of each man’s death. All this, the core of the man and his words, is, however, marred somewhat by Peck’s constant interventions with short blasts of newsreels and clips, period photos, pop tunes, and random coverage of current racial strife in Ferguson, Mo., and in Black Lives Matter rallies.
Peck seems to be aiming at the effect of classic film montage where disparate, even clashing, images are supposed to combine into some revelatory unity, yet for every effect that comes off (a glossy Doris Day close-up cutting to a grisly lynching), there are several that just cause head-scratching. He might have left some of the jump cuts to just concentrate more on that mournful yet still hopeful face of one James Baldwin. (The film, now at selected cinemas, is rated PG-13 and runs 93 minutes.)
‘The LEGO Batman Movie’
Yeah, yeah, it’s a kid’s movie. However, as happens often now with major animated releases, this one is cleverly crafted to appeal as much to mommy and daddy as to the kids.
First of all, it is bright as LEGO blocks themselves and visually most inventive. You somehow buy those plastic pieces talking! Second, it has comic Will Arnett voicing LEGO Batman in a semi-menacing growl that isn’t menacing at all, and whose seriousness is undercut by his curt, deadpan jokes. Third, the movie’s message that even a superhero needs friends and needn’t go it alone is nicely underlined. Fourth, adults will get plenty of guffaws at the movie’s off-the-wall pop references and goofy non-sequiturs. And fifth, LEGO Batman is ably backed by a cadre of buddies, voiced by Rosario Dawson (Batgirl), Michael Cera (Robin), and Ralph Fiennes (Alfred), and a parade of ditzy villains headed by the barely controlled Joker, voiced by a raging Zach Galifianakis.
The movie (rated PG) is probably too long for young kids – 104 minutes – and the pace is often wildly frenetic. The kids probably won’t care; they will just giggle at the fevered action as it washes right over them. Meanwhile their parents will realize that they are missing half the gags and one-liners in the hyper-dialogue and wonder whether they should see it again to take it all in. Which is just the repeat business that DC Studios is hoping for.
Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.