In Fifty Shades Darker, the annual episode of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, the kind of frolicking we’d see in a perfume commercial demonstrates Hollywood’s dishonest combination of prurience and prudery. Career girl/call girl Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) repeats her arrangement with millionaire sadist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Neither she nor the audience learns from the past, but here’s a surprising coincidence: This franchise, depicting white heterosexuals cluelessly indulging in decadence, reappears just when the year’s best new movies, (Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Paris: 05:59: Théo and Hugo and Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical) transcend sexual decadence and filter adult sexual relations through modern political dynamics in unabashed stories about gay social life.
While Fifty Shades Darker stays meretricious, these French movies remind us of the moral values and social significance in physical intimacy. Few American gay films show this kind of profundity (certainly not Carol or Moonlight). The moment when Théo and Hugo proclaim they are making a contribution to world peace is more resonant (and wittier) than Anastasia and Christian’s conspicuous consumption. It turns out that greed and materialism are Hollywood’s real values. Director Jamie Foley’s soft-core erotica includes Anastasia and Christian at a masked ball, evoking Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, cheapening it, too. Despite paying lip service to identity politics and whatever fantasy of social power feminism has warped into, Fifty Shades Darker indicates that Hollywood’s heterosexual films have abandoned conscience for titillation.
The interracial love story of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom is more politically astute than Loving, Hollywood’s pitiful foray into politically correct interracial history. Asante tells the story of Botswana’s Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the black African native educated at Oxford who inherited his country’s throne and then, controversially, married the white Lloyd’s of London clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). In a scene of connubial intimacy, Asante focuses on Seretse’s skin, then Ruth’s. Asante avoids Loving’s mawkish, timid approach by not cheapening the political history of integration.
This is the uncommon case of a political movie that’s ethical rather than sentimental. It’s clear that Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert have read their W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Henry Sylvester-Williams, and Aimé Césaire (Asante’s political education was also apparent in her 2015 film Belle). She isn’t one of those race hustlers who confuses the privilege of filmmaking with fashionable protesting.
Set in 1947, on the verge of South Africa’s institutionalizing apartheid, A United Kingdom shows how that iniquitous political movement affected nearby regions of the continent; the film also examines why Great Britain granted protectorate status to Bechuanaland (which eventually became Botswana when Seretse Khama was president in 1966). While telling the story of individuals who connect, Asante reveals the process by which England gradually dismantled its empire.
Framed as a love story, A United Kingdom keeps Winston Churchill’s political machinations in the background, along with colonial Europe’s self-serving efforts to control African states and profit from the continent’s gold and uranium resources. Seretse and Ruth’s passions and family-building take place against the backdrop of fading colonialism and emerging independence. (Khama led his country’s independence movement and instituted democracy.)
Asante’s technique isn’t up to her intelligence. As with Belle, Asante has made a costume drama.
Yet Asante’s technique isn’t up to her intelligence. As with Belle, the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race British girl whose high-ranking family participated in England’s 1807 abolition of the slave trade, Asante has made a costume drama. It’s her way of using Merchant-Ivory gentility to provide lessons in history. This uninspired method of filming events rather than evoking personal experience through visual metaphors misses the historical-personal resonance that made David Lean’s Madeleine and Spielberg’s Amistad profound historical films.
A United Kingdom unfortunately stars two of the haughtiest contemporary actors. David Oyelowo’s Khama retains traces of his smug Martin Luther King Jr. in the lamentable Selma. Rosamund Pike overcomes her snooty Gone Girl tendency, notably when Ruth joins a group of native women nursing their newborns. Except for Ella Khama (played by cat-eyed Abena Ayivor), who confronts Ruth with a sarcastic tribal whoop, Assante hasn’t found the perfect cast to portray lovers or radicals. Neither did Jeff Nichols in Loving, but at least Oyelowo and Pike are well-suited to portraying African and British nationals, respectively.
Oyelowo earnestly shows Khama encouraging his countrymen with this advice: “It is better to understand the mind of imperialism in order to maneuver within it.” This is preferable to Selma director Ava DuVernay’s abuse of history, which sentimentalized the American civil-rights era and pandered to today’s protest movements and fatuous anarchy. (Some of Khama’s dialogue about “resistance”seems an inadvertent parody of the Left.) Asante, instead, modestly unites African and British history: She shows postcolonial motives and a colonialist’s privilege.