“A United Kingdom” has taken in more than $6 million at the international box office since its U.K. premiere in November, but actor-producer David Oyelowo’s passion project faces its first real test in the U.S. this weekend. After opening in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles last week, generating a promising $70,000, the historical drama expands to 45 theaters on Friday. Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the North American theatrical distributions rights to the film out of the Toronto International Film Festival, and is expected to make an aggressive national push to hundreds of theaters.
Directed by British filmmaker Amma Asante, the movie is based on Susan Williams’ book “Colour Bar,” which tells the story of Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana’s marriage to Ruth Williams, a white woman from London, in the 1940s. The film stars Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike as the interracial couple whose passionate love affair was tested by the British Empire and endured the prince’s forced exile from Bechuanaland, now Botswana.
“A United Kingdom” has attracted mostly positive reviews, but not the kind of raves that signal a box office hit is about to take U.S. theaters by storm. If the movie ends up outperforming expectations, it will do so having launched at a tricky spot on the calendar. Oscar contenders take up so many screens in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards that some distributors treat February as a dumping ground for crappy movies they need to unload quickly.
Fox Searchlight declined to comment for this story, but the distributor’s expansion plan suggests it’s bullish on “A United Kingdom’s” ability to attract audiences. The political and racial issues at the heart of the film remain all too relevant today, and specialty theaters haven’t had much in the way of new historical dramas recently. Searchlight also had success distributing Asante’s previous film, “Belle,” the 2013 drama that also focused on a real-life interracial romance. The movie took in a solid $10.7 million at the worldwide box office.
Oyelowo first expressed an interest in bringing Williams’ book to the silver screen while working on the 2011 Best Picture nominee “The Help” with producer Brunson Green, who came on board to produce “A United Kingdom” almost immediately. At the time, all Oyelowo had was Williams’ book and a passionate desire to make the movie.
“You could tell there were about 250 movie moments in this biography of this amazing couple, and co we kind of culled through all those moments and tried to figure out a storyline,” Green told IndieWire. “Their life together really spans over 40 years, so we tried to figure out a really specific period where you can encompass the impact of their love on the country itself.”
At the IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards in November, Oyelowo referred to both “A United Kingdom” and his 2016 drama “Queen of Katwe” as “bucket list” movies for him personally.
“They’re both African stories, both directed by women filmmakers and they’re both being incredibly well reviewed,” Oyelowo told IndieWire. “For me, that’s mission accomplished, because all of those elements very rarely come together.”
With a such crowded field of Oscar contenders to compete with in February, will Fox Searchlight be able to attract the kind of audiences for “A United Kingdom” that showed up for Asante’s “Belle” in 2013?
“Because it is essentially a love story, the Valentine’s Day weekend and area is a great fit for us,” Green said. “That was Fox Searchlight’s idea obviously, and it’s the right way to go.” He added that the movie is a “strong word of mouth film” and pointed to its glowing reception in a 1,200-seat theater at Toronto as a good indicator of the kind of response U.S. audiences will likely have.
“They basically ended the standing ovation because they turned the lights on,” he said.