Half of a Yellow Sun: a moving story sunk beneath soap opera antics, character stereotypes and sketchy history

Biyi Bandele, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013)

Adapted from the eponymous novel, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by playwright / director Biyi Bandele, this film is a melodrama against the backdrop of the first decade of Nigeria’s independence from 1960 to 1970. The film centres around twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) who at the beginning of the film are bubbly 20-somethings fresh from postgraduate studies and eager to break away from their parents who are members of Nigeria’s political / economic elite. Olanna shocks her parents by moving in with her university professor boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Nsukka and Kainene goes to Port Harcourt in southeast Nigeria to oversee Dad’s business interests.

Much of the first half of the film busies itself with Olanna’s tempestuous relationship with Odenigbo due in part to his mother’s interference which results in Odenigbo fathering a child with a servant. Olanna then sleeps with Richard (Joseph Mawle), Kainene’s fiancé, an act that is later to cause a rift between the sisters. In the meantime, Nigeria lurches from one political crisis to another, one military government after another, until the southeast province of Biafra declares its independence in 1967. Nigerian forces invade Biafra where the sisters are based and Olanna, Odenigbo, his daughter and faithful man-servant Ugwu (John Boyega) are forced to flee Nsukka. The four temporarily stay with Odenigbo’s mother but are forced to move again after Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding is cut short by an air raid that kills one of their wedding guests. The four then go on to a refugee camp. Ugwu is called up to serve with Biafran forces and for a time is feared to be dead. Eventually Kainene and Richard, now her husband, rescue the four but further tragedy awaits them all.

The film tries to condense ten tumultuous years into just under 120 minutes and the result is a very patchy plot in which a few episodes of how the sisters and their men cope with ongoing war and the disruption it causes to them all. It’s best seen as a sort of Upstairs / Downstairs character study: the acting performances of the main characters are strong but the surprise performance is that of Boyega, whose character Ugwu has very little to say but proves to be the rock of stability for the sisters and their husbands. The couples tend to faff about and achieve little; if a message is to be taken away from the film, it might well be one about how the middle class and the intelligentsia as represented by the two couples were helpless during the civil war as they were targeted for killing by the military. For all his “revolutionary” (read: Marxist-socialist) ideas and debates, Odenigbo has no idea as to how to resist the military (much less his mum) and loses himself in drink. Richard is an ineffectual man who is dominated by Kainene but who finds deep reserves of love and courage when she goes missing.

The history lesson is very superficial and is portrayed mainly through insertions of actual newsreels of significant events in Nigeria. One has the feeling that the main characters are somehow disconnected from what’s happening around them during the early 1960s and as a result are caught like wide-eyed frightened rabbits looking into a car’s headlights as it bears down on them when war arrives in Biafra. Viewers need to have a good knowledge of the Nigerian civil war and its causes to make sense of the film. There is a chilling newsreel scene in which young boys are recruited as soldiers by the Biafran government and Ugwu himself is called to bear arms. A few scenes hint at the extreme level of violence and atrocities that occurred during the war: army officers cold-bloodedly shoot airport passengers for being of the wrong ethnicity and a gang of men with machetes menace Olanna as she tries to find her aunt.

The film might have worked better if it had been more loosely based on the novel and taken the viewpoint of Ugwu who initially arrives as a naif country-lad with hardly any education to serve Odenigbo and emerges from the film as a quietly loyal, brave and studious man who observes and remembers all. Unfortunately Ugwu is very sketchily developed and it is to Boyega’s credit that Ugwu comes out of the film as a real human being and not moving wall-paper. We would have seen through Ugwu’s eyes how ordinary working people were affected by the war and how they helped to rebuild the country after hostilities ended in 1970. The film’s end titles go on to say that Ugwu became a writer: well, there was just one tiny scene in the movie that intimated that Ugwu was continuing his education! Through Ugwu’s experiences, we might have seen a real character development through which current issues such as the use of child soldiers and the psychological effects of war on children and society generally are explored. We might also have seen how the civil war benefited the British ex-rulers and British companies extracting oil from Nigeria’s coastal regions and how the conflict and its consequences still affect the nation today.

I did feel that there was some stereotyping in the film – Olanna’s aunt is a fount of worldly wisdom and Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) is bossy and manipulative but humorous all the same – and a trope of strong women / ineffective all-talk-little-action men was evident throughout.

A very moving story lurks in the film but unfortunately it goes to waste beneath the soap opera antics and the feather-light plot.

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