REVIEW: Half of a Yellow Sun [2014]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 111 minutes | Release Date: March 24th, 2014 (UK)
Studio: Monterey Media
Director(s): Biyi Bandele
Writer(s): Biyi Bandele / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (novel)

“Go and tell your fellow witches you did not see my son”

For writer/director Biyi Bandele, adapting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s acclaimed novel Half of a Yellow Sun was more than simply a job. He read her very personal account—the revolutionary at its center is based heavily on her father while each additional character and event is a slightly varied take on an authentic tale she heard during research—and saw a love story amidst the volatile war that raged outside his parents’ door when he was brought into this world. Focusing on the short-lived independent nation Biafra (whose flag inspires the title) formed by the Igbo people after Nigeria’s own 1960 independence from England led to a domestic coup and subsequently a militarized genocide of the tribe, the story centers its history lesson on two sisters simultaneously traversing adulthood upon returning home as the world around them crumbles.

An assured cinematic debut by novelist/playwright Bandele, his decision to turn what on the page came from the eyes of a peasant boy named Ugwu (John Boyega) to the idealism of wealthy-born and internationally educated Olanna (Thandie Newton) allows the film to stand as a companion to Adichie’s work rather than a purely faithful adaptation. While the author herself is quoted as telling Bandele that he “got the book” upon screening it, however, I must say he may have turned to the story’s weakest character in the process. It’s a baseless sentiment considering I haven’t read the novel, but I personally found myself intrigued by everyone else more than this woman of privilege constantly finding herself mired in tragedy with a bratty attitude and a surplus of tears.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Bandele wanted to show these disparate people as they revolved around someone who could be relatable in her personal failings, compromises, and ideals. In fact, knowing the novel is told through Ugwu’s experiences makes the film’s role as an introduction to Adichie’s work that much more effective because the drama unfolding truly is universal. While we’re shown a glimpse into civil war’s difficulties and tragedies for someone positioned with better resources and a bigger voice than most, the idea of what it must have looked like from the point of view of a boy with little power to do anything is a riveting concept. Allowing viewers to see Olanna’s love and sacrifice front and center, though, helps the horrors depicted become more palatable and primed for wider appeal.

This is a good thing too in the long run because Half of a Yellow Sun shows us an inside look at a time and place many Westerners like myself know nothing about. Utilizing archival footage of Igbo leader C. Odumegwu Ojukwu to position us alongside the characters as hope is formed and dreams dashed grounds it in historical fact even if the story itself is ultimately a fictionalized account. We get a sense of the tension, the desire of both sides of the country to wrest away political control, and the eye-opening evolution of young revolutionaries turning into hardened souls who’ve witnessed the casualty of war firsthand. These are young people discovering places for themselves inside a country yearning for an identity whose newfound freedom affords little protection once greed and prejudice take over.

It’s a familiar tale one cannot help but compare to the struggles in Egypt after their own series of political coups following the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Factions fight for control with purpose only to see those in charge replace one oppressive regime with another. But what of the people made to live under these ever-changing rules—those attempting to embrace a new world more dangerous than the old? Answering this is what Adichie and Bandele look to accomplish by showing us the differing paths of two sisters caught within. Olanna and her revolutionary boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), academics vocally living at the frontlines of tribal conflict opposite Kainene’s (Anika Noni Rose) pragmatic businesswoman finding success and love with English journalist Richard (Joseph Mawle). Eventually neither can escape their heritage or the violence wrought against it.

Adichie throws in the kitchen sink too, culling together every horrific thing she learned about Nigeria during its civil war to ratchet up drama and force her characters to choose whether they’ll stand strong or buckle and break. Condensing the novel into two hours unfortunately doesn’t do the film any favors as far as melodrama is concerned with the middle portion falling pray to soap opera sensibilities via sexual affairs, illegitimately babies, and angry parents disappointed in the decisions made by their children. The goal is to try and make the domestic issues seem as important as the outside struggle, but one can’t help see most of it as trite in comparison to bombs exploding at a wedding or cold-blooded massacres in public forums. Olanna is the one character affected most by the former rather than the latter.

She’s generally caught reacting while Ugwu is forced to engage. This is why I can see his view being more resonant. In fact, experiencing it through Odenigbo’s eyes as he joins political groups and rebel meetings we never see or Kainene’s as she evolves from corporate executive to survivalist to refugee camp opener would be too. That’s not to say Newton is poor in the role—quite the contrary actually. She’s great in a part that sadly gets portrayed as the victim despite it being those around her dying and fighting. She’s strong in her own way, taking on the familial responsibilities and caring for so many other people around her, but it’s what they’re doing that truly piques interest. Watching her cry a tenth time isn’t nearly as emotive as seeing Mawle’s Richard witnessing an inexcusable execution once.

Story focus aside, though, Half of a Yellow Sun does appear to get the nightmare of 1960s Nigeria onscreen with enough historical fact to beg us to research more. Like many revolutions we see the two sides fighting for control the only way they know how. The Northerners are the villains obviously with our main cast being Igbo, but that doesn’t mean we don’t catch a glimpse of Ojukwu’s own crazed lust for blood. And even within this affluent group of intellectual friends at its center is conflict courtesy of Olanna and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose steals scenes with her fierce opinions and no-nonsense attitude)—personally and politically. In order to survive, though, family must prevail where everything else fails. It may not all be a happy ending, but neither is life or its myriad examples of squandered peace.

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