With Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s storytelling prowess, a big budget, tremendous goodwill and a talented director, Half of a Yellow Sun should have been great. So why was it just OK? And where were the Nigerians?
A critic once said, casting is destiny. The thought is inescapable watching Biyi Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel of same title, the film is set in sixties Nigeria, and follows sisters Olanna and Kainene and their men. Kainene (Annika Noni-Rose) falls into bed with Richard, a British journalist, and they begin a relationship. Olanna (Thandie Newton) leaves her parents in Lagos to join Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a lecturer at the University of Nigeria. In the book Odenigbo is called the Revolutionary; onscreen he retains the nickname but doing little besides engaging in bouts of chatty drinking, he could be the Drunk.
We have arrived at blaxproximation – the idea that all black people are the same
The Civil War breaks out with Ojukwu’s announcement of secession, ending the fanfare and launching the trials. Olanna’s parents flee country and story leaving the younger characters, who, like director Bandele, are concerned more with romance than war. Before long the Caucasian beds the other sister, Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) arranges a fertile help for her son who really loves his girlfriend but beds the help anyway. And on and on, Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a British daytime soap.
The American film industry has for decades presented the world with approximations of blackness and so effective is the ploy, via repetition and spectacle, that the same people reduced to a uniform mass, accept a shoddy simulacrum onscreen, so that Annika Noni-Rose’s performance in spite of her American accent has been hailed. First black face, then blaxploitation; and finally, we have arrived at blaxproximation—the idea that all black people are the same, the logical step from Africa-is-a-country.
Despite what the producers will have you believe, Half of a Yellow Sun the movie, unlike its source novel, isn’t for Nigerians. It is why Nigeria’s preeminent actress, Genevieve Nnaji, is a bit player, handed a scene where Hollywood Ejiofor shouts her down as though he is tutor and she his Nollywood student. It is why ascendant actor OC Ukeje has only a cameo. It is the reason that, of the four main characters, none is played by a Nigerian, even as three in Adichie’s book are Nigerians.
Cinema is a representation of its people and as a commercial enterprise it caters to the predilections of its major demographic. With Caucasians as majority in the UK and the US, the historic lack of quality roles for minorities in both cinema cultures is understandable. There is nothing quite as empowering as seeing an image of oneself blowing things up in action movies, nothing as certain to provoke empathy as your cinema avatar weeping, nothing quite as aphrodisiacal as watching one of yours get the girl. Made for an international audience, Half of a Yellow Sun shows a bunch of citizens of the western hemisphere emoting in Africa.
“One does not go to see them act,” James Baldwin said about movie stars, “one goes to watch them be.” Barred by an apparently impenetrable language, the stars of Half of a Yellow Sun cannot project being. Ejiofor’s Odenigbo fails to pronounce his own name nor can Newton’s Olanna—Onyeka Onwenu, bless her soul, tries in vain to school both of them. Annika Noni-Rose as Kainene retains her American accent. And unforgivably, Newton is unable to say ‘kedu’—this last is particularly troubling.
The announcement of Bandele as director was largely uncontroversial, thanks to his name. Newton wasn’t as fortunate. Yet since a film is the product of a director’s vision, Nigerian viewers were in some ways pacified. But when a director—a Nigerian director—ignores his lead actress’s mangled pronunciation of the basic Igbo greeting, there may be a need to recalibrate the pacifier. The last vowel sound in ‘kedu’ is very different from the vowel sound ending ‘keda’ or the terminal diphthong of ‘kedai,’ or whatever Newton manages to produce in a scene where a Yoruba man unwittingly berates Igbos in an exchange with her character. (Despite his ethnic bigotry, you want to applaud the perspicacity of the Yoruba character: he is the only one connected with the film to correctly out Newton as an outsider.)
Along with Sefi Atta, Adichie is the most filmable of contemporary Nigerian novelists. Her Half of a Yellow Sun even takes a few stylistic turns that would work in cinema handled by an imaginative director. Orson Welles once bemoaned how a writer as filmable as Joseph Conrad had been mangled five times by Hollywood. Adichie hasn’t been that unfortunate—she has just the three novels and so cannot be that unfortunate.
Plus Bandele doesn’t quite mangle her film as much as lobotomises it. The conflict in the book is reduced, eliminated, the story wrapped up before… before who knows what? Viewers who have read the book and those who haven’t will be united in chagrin. The former for how Bandele’s adaptation becomes a strange article—a sanitary wartime story—and the latter for expectations not just deferred but unmet.
By the end lovers Odenigbo and Kainene drive on as the sun sets and cheesy endnotes tell us the fate of the characters. It appears Bandele wanted his story to be real, as though that will imbue his film with an unearned power.
In the film itself, Bandele intercuts his film with BBC footage of the war. Rather than lend his fiction historical authority, this decision shows Bandele to be unsure of his medium’s capacity, to be of two minds concerning cinema’s power to convey the truth in fiction. Perhaps this is a result of Bandele’s training in theatre, which obtains its power not from the roaming lens of a camera but from the audience’s presence at the scene, from a notion, at least nominally, of witnessing.
The budget was huge, goodwill enormous, it came from a popular book; it was supposed to be great.
First-time filmmakers from a theatrical background typically undercut their discomfort by piling on dialogue—the tighter, the better. See Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999) with its talky ironic narrator; see John Patrick Shanley’s tight, expository dialogue in 2008’s Doubt.
In this regard, Bandele is undeserved by Adichie’s novelistic quirk. There is never dialogue for dialogue’s sake in an Adichie novel; she uses dialogue to power the plot. Repartee, even between lovers, is never employed for the simple joys of talking unless in advancement of story. And in neglecting this feature of Adichie’s work and compressing her novel into a feature film barely longer than an hour, Bandele’s work is shorn of Adichie’s considerable narrative power and also deflates what authenticity his own theatrical background may have brought. Added unto the pernicious straining for a verisimilitude of actual history, Bandele’s Half of a Yellow Sun is stagey. Watching it is to watch a theatre-man with a fine cinematographer behind a stationary camera taking conventional shots as his actors fail to become their characters and avoid elements of the set, so that Ejiofor is clearly playing an Igbo man, as Newton is playing an Igbo woman, and the set radiates pristineness, like the characters are transplanted like saplings after each scene.
Half of a Yellow Sun isn’t a bad film. But in some ways one wishes it was. One would sooner abide that than a dull flick, a fate which Noni-Rose’s spunk and the compassionate portrayal of the other leads help the film narrowly evade. No, it isn’t a bad film, as tolerable as that may be. The budget was huge, the goodwill enormous, and came from a popular book; it was supposed to be great and direct foreign attention to Nollywood. Perhaps the burden was too much for a first-time director—a debut director for whom paradoxically a verdict of ‘shows promise’ can only be construed as insult.
The emotion Half of a Yellow Sun evokes is not anger; it is disappointment. And considered alongside the miniseries Shuga, the director’s only other work behind the camera, it shows Biyi Bandele to be a lightweight craftsman. A purveyor of the passable-when only the great will do.