The personal and political intersect in an epic drama from the heady days of Nigeria’s independence to the failed attempt to set up the breakaway independent republic of Biafra, and the start of a civil war.
Cry, The Beloved Country by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Half Of A Yellow Sun covers a breathtakingly epic sweep of modern Nigerian history and geography, starting with the excitement and optimism of the fireworks on independence day in Lagos in 1960, through the declaration of independence by southeastern province Biafra in 1967, the civil war that followed, and the eventual collapse of the Biafran republic and the flight into exile of its self-proclaimed leader General Gowon in 1970. Though the sequence of historic events is shown through contemporary newsreel clips interspersed thoughout, they’re mainly used as a backdrop and the film focuses on the personal, and, in particular, four people whose lives will be changed by the war.
Twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton, Mission Impossible II amongst many others) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls and The Good Wife), the daughters of a rich Lagos businessman, have been highly educated in the UK and the US. Independent in their thinking, they are too westernised to conform to convention now they are back in Nigeria. Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, of 12 Years A Slave, and excellent yet again here, though somewhat low key in his role as a progressive intellectual, perhaps channelling some of his stage persona in Lumumba) is nicknamed by the sisters ‘The Revolutionary’. He is Olanna’s lover, and eventually husband, a professor in a northern university, where she later joins him as a lecturer. The other sister, Kainene, starts a long-lasting relationship with Richard (Joseph Mawle, from British film Shell and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), a quiet Englishman drawn to Nigeria by the arts, whom she meets at an independence day party, and she later moves to Port Harcourt in the east of the country to run her father’s business there.
Seen through Olanna’s eyes, we follow the shifting relationships between the four as they are buffeted around Nigeria by external events: a coup, the civil war, inter-tribal violence. The fates of the two couples remain interconnected. Olanna and Odenigbo retreat as penniless refugees from city to city, eventually ending up in the doomed, short-lived republic of Biafra, together with their long-serving faithful houseboy Ugwu (John Boyega, from Attack The Block), whilst Odenigbo’s mother steadfastly refuses to leave her home in what has become a war zone. Meanwhile, in contrast, pragmatic businesswoman Kainene appears to be profiteering from the war until tragedy strikes and she is presumed missing.
At the start, we see the sophisticated dinner-table conversations and after-dinner political discussions on colonialism, independence, ethnicity and all the related issues that dominate the get-togethers of the Nigerian academics and intellectuals of the time. The newly independent nation’s underpinning conflict between tradition and modernity is played out between Odenigbo and his ferocious mother (legendary Nigerian music star and award-winning actress Onyeka Onwenu) – “A village woman,” he says dimissively – who is hostile to Olanna for untraditionally living with her son while unmarried. She schemes to lure him away from her with the bait of a young girl she brings to stay with her from the village – and unfortunately, he is weak and susceptible, and so in need of forgiveness. But all these emotions and hostilities pale into insignficance as the violence and ethnic killings start, and the political issues cease to be just abstract and start to affect all the protagonists very personally.
The novel Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize for its author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. London-based Biyi Bandele, who adapted it for the screen, and also directed it, has previously adapted fellow Nigerian Chinua Achebe’s classic Things Fall Apart for the London stage. But Half Of A Yellow Sun is his first feature, and though the Sixties’ period detail and aspirational music of the time is well observed (Miriam Makeba and Eartha Kitt). It’s a good first film, but it shows its low budget in the battle sequences and it doesn’t quite gell in places, perhaps because it restricts its viewpoint mainly to that of Olanna and to a lesser extent Kainene, unlike the novel, which also saw events through the eyes of other, different characters.
So despite the excellent creative credentials of all concerned, the film is not entirely successful, although it is pleasingly ambitious and at times very involving and definitely worth seeing. Perhaps the novel had to be too truncated and oversimplified for the screen. Although there are helpful graphics to guide us round the country because the varied locations are significant, it’s not always clear where we are or why, and the film starts to seem like a disconnected series of events rather than a dramatic whole, and which could benefit from more exploration of the underlying politics which would give them meaning. But all the actors are excellent, and the relationship between the two independent sisters is particularly interesting and dynamic. Overall, it’s a fascinating slice of modern history that may be unfamiliar to some, which can also give us an insight into the making of contemporary Nigeria.
Half Of A Yellow Sun is released on 21st March 2014