2016 Awards Profile: ‘A United Kingdom’ from Amma Asante

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Welcome to the 2016 Awards Profiles series, where we talk about high and low-profile films coming to a theater near you at some point this year.  We will analyze the potential for these films to be players for the Academy Awards, and while many of these have the potential to be recognized, many will not either by quality or being pushed back to the following year.  For the next eight weeks, we will bring you a film every weekday to talk about their potential.  If you have a suggestion, please include it in the comments below.  If you missed a film, click on the tag or category Awards Profile.

Directed By: Amma Asante

Written By: Guy Hibbert

Cast: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Jack Davenport, Jack Lowden, Terry Pheto and Vusi Kunene

Synopsis (From IMDB): Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana causes an international stir when he marries a white woman from London in the late 1940s.

Why It Could Succeed:

Director Amma Asante and actors David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike make for a powerful trio destined to unleash a holy rain of praise from critics with A United Kingdom. All three have been singled out in their respective careers for unwavering commitment and free-flowing passion. Amma Asante’s past two films, A Way of Life and Belle, are character-driven but fully engage with the turbulent social climate impacting their protagonists. Belle became a sleeper indie hit and huge star vehicle for Gugu Mbatha-Raw because it allowed its titular character to steer the course of history without sacrificing individual happiness. Asante’s films are widely appealing because matters of the state and matters of the heart work in tandem, buoying one another to pave a better world for those marginalized by an unfair system.

Like Belle, A United Kingdom features a controversial interracial romance among the ruling class that quickly becomes the impetus for radical progressive change across the continent. In this case, Oyelowo plays the real-life Seretse Khama, the eventual president of Botswana who fought for his country’s independence from Great Britain and took a major stance against neighboring South Africa’s apartheid government. Khama and his Caucasian wife, First Lady of Botswana Ruth Williams – who was raised in an upper-class London household and served as an ambulance driver in World War II – became a symbol of global unity despite differences in skin color and national upbringing. So long as Asante mixes a similar batch of ingredients used for Belle into the final cut of A United Kingdom, the latter film will be accessible to all and wholly approved by ardent fans of the “sweeping romance” genre. The box office successes of 2014’s Belle and last year’s Far from the Madding Crowd prove there’s still a major demand for historical costume dramas of this ilk so long as their themes resonate as forcefully today as they did upon inception.

One of the worst Oscar snubs ever is destined for reparation...possibly for his work in 'A United Kingdom.'
One of the worst Oscar snubs ever is destined for reparation…possibly for his work in ‘A United Kingdom.’

Why It Could Fail:

While production company Pathé is the French equivalent of Warner Brothers, even it won’t be able to compete in market visibility with Walt Disney Pictures’ Queen of Katwe, David Oyelowo’s higher profile awards film set to debut this year. A United Kingdom currently has neither a U.S. distributor nor a set release date, leaving it in a state of post-production flux until it debuts at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival. Depending on reviews of the film – a passion project for Oyelowo who pushed for Asante to direct and Pike to costar – A United Kingdom could either be picked up by a stateside distributor or be ignored entirely. Such uncertainty naturally shakes one’s confidence in both the quality of the film and its awards potential, especially since Queen of Katwe will be dominating headlines and building buzz through the year. The latter movie marks Lupita Nyong’o’s return to live action since winning her Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave. Although Hollywood is incrementally changing for the better, it’s still a self-serving entity that would have no problem undercutting one POC biographical drama to bolster another if it means maximizing profits for its pony in the race.

My other concern is that David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike don’t have the mainstream clout to keep A United Kingdom financially afloat should it fall well below the radar or, god forbid, receive negative feedback. The two are known more for the iconic screen characters they inhabit (Oyelowo for Martin Luther King, Jr. and and Pike for “Amazing” Amy Dunne) rather than their celebrity value – in fact, I doubt the two are household names even at this great stage of their respective careers. Oyelowo is currently the main supporting player in the heavily controversial Nina Simone musical biopic Nina, releasing this month with a wave of negative press behind it. Pike followed up Gone Girl with the critically reviled thriller Return to Sender, a film nobody saw despite it being the first major project starring Pike since her Oscar-nominated breakout role. It just goes to show that Gone Girl’s blockbuster status reinforces the power of source material, not casting, when it comes to pitching a film to the masses. Among the film-loving community, Oyelowo and Pike might be two of the most cherished thespians working today, but to the rest of the world they’re just two recognizable faces whose names have escaped memory.

An incredible filmmaker whose upcoming 'A United Kingdom' might make her the first female African director nominated for an Oscar.
An incredible filmmaker whose upcoming ‘A United Kingdom’ might make her the first black female director nominated for an Oscar.

Awards Speculation:

I would love to see AMPAS voters rally around David Oyelowo after cruelly snubbing him for his astounding, spiritually-charged performance as the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. It would almost be equally pleasant to see yet another accolade for the underrated Rosamund Pike, amazing in everything she touches, and who deserves a Hillary Swank/Holly Hunt resurgence at the Oscars minus the post-ceremony invisible career. The year might once again be too competitive for these two critical darlings, especially since it’s no guarantee that A United Kingdom will see the commercial light of day this year. Oyelowo will be competing with himself in Queen of Katwe unless he goes “Supporting,” and Rosamund Pike will need to do far more than be a charming First Lady who stands behind her man in support of his political undertakings. I have a feeling both will ultimately delight but may be overlooked by meatier roles from other actors considered “more due” for recognition (*cough* Amy Adams and Michael Keaton *cough*).

Look for Asante to gain some traction as someone who could potentially become the first black female director ever nominated for an Academy Award (Ava DuVernay was this close for Selma two years ago). What might give Amma Asante an advantage are her British roots – should the film be a major triumph, BAFTA members who also participate in AMPAS voting could make the difference in getting her a front-row seat at the Dolby. Moreover, Asante’s sensibilities as a filmmaker do appeal to an older demographic that enjoys a throwback period piece with elements of tear-jerking social injustice that must be righted.

“Best Picture” might be off the table since the film is currently off the 2016 U.S. schedule, but this could rapidly change in the next several months.

Oscar Potential:
Best Director
Best Actor – David Oyelowo
Best Actress – Rosamund Pike
Best Supporting Actor – Tom Felton
Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design
Best Original Score
Best Original Screenplay

Share your thoughts in the comments or on the message forums!

Check out the first official set of
Year-In-Advanced Oscar Predictions
and see where A United Kingdom ranks!