DIR/WRI: Biyi Bandele • PRO: Andrea Calderwood • DOP: John de Borman • ED: Chris Gill • MUS: Ben Onono, Paul Thomson • DES: Andrew McAlpine • CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, John Boyega
Half of a Yellow Sun embodies Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message”. Whilst the characters on screen navigate the class dynamics of colonial life; choosing to adopt certain characteristics of their European colonisers in order to advance professionally and socially; the film itself reflects a growing trend in mainstream cinema of dealing with African themes using traditional Western narrative structures. In the past many African films shirked the Western model. This came from the feeling that African directors lacked an instinctive sense of the Hollywood aesthetic, which meant that they were on the back foot when it came to international distribution. Complaints about production values, narrative devices, visual metaphors were subdued when African directors began following the principles of the Third Cinema movement and rejected the Hollywood model. Interestingly, and perhaps importantly, the latest batch of films dealing with issues of race; notably Long Walk to Freedom; unapologetically utilise a more Western approach.
Set during the Biafran War that took place between 1967 and 1970, Chiwetel Ejiofar stars as Odenigbo; a radical professor with an interest in postcolonial theory. The film revolves around his relationship with his lover Olanna, and the relationship between Olanna’s sister Kainene and Englishman Richard. The civil war background plays itself out through the neuroses of these four characters, caught as they are between Igbo and English cultures. What’s interesting is how the film plays around with the nuances of colonisation. It creates a dichotomy between the older or less educated Igbo population, who deal in emotions and superstition, and the cold logic of their European colonisers. Most of the central characters lie in the middle of this spectrum, having received an English education and yet remaining Nigerian rather than English. For example, Odenigbo is capable of advancing professionally as a critic of colonisation precisely because he has absorbed the English accent and cold logic the film associates with its English characters. The cognitive dissonance caused by this plays out in the tension and tenuousness of his interactions with his turbulent environment.
A rising star, Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to be best-known to audiences for his role in 12 Years a Slave. Given Idris Elba’s recent observation about the glass ceiling faced by black actors in England, it’s nice to see films like this being made (although it should be noted that although it’s an English-Nigerian co-production, it was filmed in Nigeria at writer Biyi Bandele’s request). Ejiofor brings a visceral undercurrent of sensitivity to his cold intellectual; embodying the tensions between Igbo and English culture without drawing overt attention to it. The performances by the rest of the cast are noteworthy – especially John Boyega as Ugwu who conveys a lot with very little dialogue.
While a few minutes could be cut, its running time is reasonable and it keeps an even pace throughout. Its violence is genuinely shocking and comes in small, controlled doses. It’s real, fast, in plain sight. There are no special camera angles, no editing tricks, no gratuitous blood: just real violence, and it is all the more disturbing for that. There are a few nods to Chinua Achebe and his ilk, such as when an English photographer – during his first hours in Lagos – snaps the locals without so much as talking to them. His ignorance is emphasised because we compare him to the other Englishman, Richard; who has spent time amongst the Igbo population, speaks the language, and has integrated into the culture. Achebe’s great lesson is that of the coloniser projecting his or her own exoticised narrative onto the local Nigerian population. As Odenigbo says, “Race was invented by the white man as a means to oppression.”
Biyi Bandele, the writer of both the film’s screenplay and its source material, does a decent job directing, although it’s standard enough. There are a few beautiful flourishes, interesting newsreel footage, and the aforementioned steady hand when it comes to violence. Bandele comes from a writing background and is a successful playwright. That this, an early foray into directing, comes across as solid is achievement enough, and with the help of a potent screenplay the film manages to open up Lagos society to a Western audience in compelling fashion.
The film flags somewhat in the moments it loses sight of its politics; but, while the balance between kitchen-sink drama and colonial analysis is sometimes uneven, the civil war background provides enough tension to carry some of the film’s weaker moments. Although its political dialectic can occasionally sound expository, its ideas are new enough to cinema to make those lines worthwhile.
For those unfamiliar with Nigerian history, this film serves as an engaging introduction and will hopefully help bridge the gap between Nigerian cinema and the European or Hollywood model.
Half of a Yellow Sun is released on 11th April 2014