Half of a Yellow Sun
Directed by Biyi Bandele
Opens at the New African Films Festival at the AFI Silver Theatre March 13; additional screening March 16, followed by discussion with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In many ways, Half of a Yellow Sun, which makes its local debut as part of the New African Films Festival in Silver Spring this week, is a fairly conventional drama about love, betrayal, and family.
The film, based on the book of the same name by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—the Nigerian-born writer who graduated from Hopkins’ creative writing program in 2003 and divides her time between Columbia, Md., and Lagos—focuses on twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton from The Pursuit of Happyness and Crash) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose from Dreamgirls) born to a wealthy Nigerian family in the 1960s. The first half of the film largely focuses on the sisters’ romantic entanglements, Olanna with “revolutionary” professor Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar-nominated for 12 Years a Slave) and Kainene with English novelist Richard (Joseph Mawle, Game of Thrones’ Benjen Stark). The film depicts the elite of newly independent Nigeria confronting the clash between modernity and tradition, along with the changing roles of women and servants—particularly in the meaty role of Ugwu (John Boyega), who works for Odenigbo—but all of that serves mostly as a backdrop to several overlapping love triangles, or parallelograms or maybe rhombuses, and related plotting, jealousy, and revenge.
And then war explodes in Nigeria. The oil-rich southeast provinces of the country, populated largely by the Igbo people, secede and form the Republic of Biafra (the title refers to the image on the new nation’s flag). Over several years and after seemingly endless violence, war rages on, ravaging the lives of millions, including the sisters and their families, who are Igbo and have mostly relocated to that region. The dynamics of the relationships shift and then shift again, until those who have made it through the worst of the worst cling to each other for survival, and so much of what preceded is forgotten. As Olanna says to Kainene when they are reunited several years into the war, “There are some things so unforgivable, they make other things easily forgivable.”
Adichie is a brilliant author, winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2008. Her most recent novel, Americanah, which came out in paperback this past week, was named one of 2013’s best books by the New York Times Book Review. Like the best writers of historical fiction, she weaves together the personal and the political so smoothly that readers emerge with a deeper understanding of historical events—in this case, not just the Biafran War but the broader struggles of post-colonial African countries—than we would ever get from nonfiction accounts. And the adapted screenplay holds these essential truths at its core.
The film, shot on location in Nigeria, looks beautiful, filled not only with rich exteriors of Nigerian villages and countryside but with detailed depictions of day-to-day life up and down the economic scale. The opening scene, where the sisters’ parents host a dinner party for Nigeria’s finance minister, is filled with ornate goblets and jewelry, offering a hint of the extravagance they’ve come to know. Many years and degradations in living conditions later, Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu, and a daughter enter their new communal housing block; a woman bathing her sons in the central bath gives a sense of how much things have changed. “We’ll get something better soon,” Odenigbo says when they get to their cramped quarters. When Kainene, who has gone from war profiteer to director of a refugee camp, visits soon thereafter, Olanna is washing her daughter in the same bath.
The cast is superb. It’s no surprise that Chiwetel Ejiofor—who has earned so much acclaim for role in 12 Years a Slave and has been turning out powerful performances since his small, memorable role in Steven Spielberg’s Amistadin 1997—offers a nuanced, perfect depiction of conflicted, flawed “revolutionary” Odenigbo. But John Boyega’s subtle, quiet transformation from scared, young houseboy to family member to traumatized war veteran is a revelation, one of the more bravura supporting performances we’ve seen in recent years. Newton and Rose look absolutely nothing alike and, at first, it’s hard to believe them as family members, let alone twins, but as the movie wears on, their relationship takes on a ring of truth. And as conflict arises, their resilience and determination starts to look like a family trait.
In the end, the audience is left with that resilience. These characters and this country endure so much that it’s clear survival is baked into their DNA.