Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Lil Rel Howery and Caleb Landry Jones. Opens Friday at major theatres. 104 minutes. 14A
A United Kingdom
Starring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton and Vusi Kunene. Directed by Amma Asante. Opens Friday at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas. 111 minutes. PG
Fifty years after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner jolted moviegoers with its frank depiction of interracial romance, moviemakers still find potency in the topic.
It’s the theme of two films opening in Toronto theatres Friday — Get Out and A United Kingdom — which says something about the slow pace of social change and also about our collective desire to revisit stories.
There’s a vast difference of approach, and also of impact, between the audacious horror of Get Out and the serious historical drama of A United Kingdom.
Yet there are fascinating similarities: diverse love is met with diverse obstruction in both films, and symbols of class distinctions — a fancy tea cup and a sherry glass — make loud statements about the many small ways an authority figure can patronize a perceived subordinate.
Get Out will get the audiences out this weekend. It’s the directing debut of writer/director Jordan Peele, known for his Key & Peele sketch comedy series with Keegan-Michael Key.
The movie proceeds with this scarily satiric notion: What if Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner began as social commentary and morphed into a horrifying demonstration of taking cultural appropriation to extremes?
Daniel Kaluuya is Chris, an arty photographer who has been dating the liberally minded Rose (Allison Williams) for five months. It’s now time to meet Rose’s parents: her neurosurgeon dad Dean (Bradley Whitford), therapist mom Missy (Catherine Keener) and excitable brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones).
Chris is a little worried: “Do they know I’m black?” he asks Rose. His close pal Rod (Lil Rel Howery), an airport security official who thinks he’s a detective, warns him not to go.
On the long road trip to the family’s expansive and secluded rural estate, Chris and Rose tangle with a racist cop straight out of Central Casting.
They’re in for a whole other brand of bigotry, however, when they reach the family manse, despite assurances that everybody would have voted for Barack Obama for a third term, if only they’d had the chance.
Peele takes his time getting into the terror aspect of the tale, although hints are there — why are the African-American groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and maid (Betty Gabriel) acting so strangely? — and the stalking camera and Psycho-esque soundtrack strings risk turning the dread into horror parody. But when the blood starts flowing, along with audience cheering, the battle for hearts and minds is well and truly on.
A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante (Belle), seeks to win people over in a quieter fashion. It’s based on the true story of the unsanctioned love between African King Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (now called Botswana), and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white office worker from London.
They caused an international incident — and scandalous headlines — in the late 1940s when they announced their intention to marry and to become the royal couple of Bechuanaland, a plan that upset both whites and blacks.
Oyelowo and Pike make for a convincing couple, even if the romance is the love-at-first-sight variety that requires a certain leap of faith. What sparked the roaring fires of this wild amour, a union that Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) warns will bring “a life of insults and shame”?
At least he’s upfront about his ignorance and racism. Not so the many stiff-necked bureaucrats of the British government, who employ many deceitful euphemisms to oppose the marriage.
Among them are the sherry-sipping Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) who declares it “a matter of diplomatic necessity” to keep Seretse and Ruth apart. This “diplomatic necessity” includes appeasing the racist rulers of South Africa, who are about to enact the evil legislation known as apartheid. Bechuanaland borders South Africa, and it wouldn’t look right to have a high-profile mixed-race couple right on the doorstep.
The bad guys don’t all have pale faces. Seretse also gets serious pushback from his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene), the regent of the Bamangwato tribe, who can’t abide the thought of a white queen on the throne: “Do not belittle your kingdom,” he warns his nephew.
Other members of the tribe express similar views: “Do you understand what ‘Mother of our Nation’ means?” a skeptical woman asks Ruth.
With so many conflicting voices and red tape tangling the narrative of A United Kingdom, it’s perhaps inevitable that Assante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) lose focus of the inspiring romance between Seretse and Ruth. There aren’t enough scenes of them together as a happy couple.
Fortunately, Oyelowo uses the gift for oratory he previously displayed in Selma to command all ears and eyes. He’s speaking not just to the crowd but also the future, as witness his response when a journalist asks him why he’s fighting so hard against seemingly insurmountable odds: “You have to start somewhere.” Indeed, and the struggle ever ends.
Also opening Friday: Colm McCarthy’s zombie horror The Girl with All the Gifts, starring Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close and Sennia Nanua, at Cinplex Yonge-Dundas; and Sebastian Lange’s Transcendental Meditation documentary Shadows of Paradise, featuring David Lynch, at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.
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