Title: Half Of A Yellow Sun
Director: Biyi Bandele
Major Players: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose
Out Of Five? 3
Another book adaptation – and this time one I’ve read. Partly. I was given Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun for my birthday a couple of years ago. The reviews had been glowing and it looked like a good choice but, for some reason, I struggled with it. It seemed to be mainly about lots of people sitting around talking. I persevered but gave up half way through. It simply wasn’t for me.
From the look of the film adaptation, perhaps I should have stuck with it for a while longer. It’s very much a film of two halves and seems to suffer from the same problem as the book, in that it only gets going in the second half when the characters find themselves plunged into the Nigerian civil war, sparked by Biafra’s declaration of independence.
Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) are sisters from a well to do family. They’re highly educated – Kainene has been to Harvard and Oxford – attractive and sophisticated. Olanna is already in a relationship with a civil servant, Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), while Kainene starts seeing a Brit (Joseph Mawle). They all have a comfortable life, but change comes when Biafra, the part of the newly independent Nigeria in which they live, declares itself independent and a civil war along tribal lines ensues. They lose their homes, their jobs and their lives soon come under threat as well.
If I remember correctly, the book was written through the eyes of servant boy, Ugwu, who works for Odenigbo, but that’s not the case here. He’s very much in the background, only occasionally coming forward, so he is not the prominent character he was. Yet, when he returns from the front during the war (he has been reported dead) with minimal injuries, he is welcomed back as if he was the most important member of the family. At the end of the film, we’re told that he became a writer. But, as we didn’t have much of a chance to get to know him, why should we care?
It loses out from that approach. Much is made of the contrast and conflict between village communities and the more educated people in town. Odenigbo’s mother comes from a village and represents the superstition that goes with it, accusing Olanna of being a witch, simply because she’s educated and has a career. Ugwu is also a village boy, but his viewpoint would have balanced the mother’s.
As the events took place in the 1960s, the film makes use of contemporary media coverage. There’s the original black and white Movietone news footage, complete with a very RP news reader, of a visit from the Queen and Nigerians celebrating their independence. By contrast, Biafra marks its independence with less exuberance and over a shorter period of time. That’s also viewed through more archive footage, with a political commentary coming from the likes of Frederick Forsythe and Michael Nicholson. The fighting and bombing are there, but the one aspect of the civil war that everybody associates with it is noticeable by its absence – the starvation of thousands of people, especially the emaciated children, after the Nigerians put a blockade on supplies and medical help. Yet it was TV news reporting at the time that made it a worldwide story.
The film boasts a strong cast, and will inevitably attract much attention because of Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose Odenigbo is nothing nowhere near as noble as Solomon Northup. An idealistic academic, he cannot resist temptation, getting his mother’s maid pregnant, but he is still what you would call a decent man, caring both for his wife and his country. It’s the women who are the strong ones – Thandie Newton as the independent and career minded Olanna and Anika Noni Rose is especially good as her cool headed, business orientated sister Kainene. During the war, she runs a refugee camp – the most unlikely person to do it – and all the occupants under her care look remarkably well fed. But not even the resourceful Kainene would have been able to beat the blockade to that extent.
The half of a yellow sun in the title is at the centre of the Biafran flag, which comprises a red, black and green horizontal stripe with the sun in the middle of the black one. If the idea behind the film and the book was to tell the story of the civil war through the experiences of ordinary people, it’s only partly successful. A tighter first half of the film would have given the second part more impact. As it is, we’re presented with something closer to a soap opera – a superior one, true, but still a soap.
With its high profile and highly talented cast and the reputation of the book going for it, Half Of A Yellow Sun is only half the film it could have been.
Half Of A Yellow Sun is released around the UK on Friday, 11 April.