Half of a Yellow Sun is now available on iTunes and other video streaming services.
by Lisa Nielson
The film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun is subtle and engrossing.
Directed by Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele, the film stars British actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, supported by a strong ensemble cast of Nigerian and British actors. Half of a Yellow Sun received mixed reviews in the US and Europe, and was further overshadowed by Ejiofor’s critically acclaimed 12 Years a Slave. In an additional complication, the film was originally supposed to open in Nigeria shortly after its release in Europe and the US, however, the Nigerian Film board stalled its Nigerian premiere due to concern over scenes depicting the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970).
In Adichie’s novel, the story is told through three specific viewpoints; however, the adaptation uses an omniscient perspective. Perhaps to render the events and story less complex or more appealing, the film focuses more on romance than politics. The film centers on the lives of two sisters raised in privilege, Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) and Olanna (Thandie Newton). We meet them on the cusp of the civil war, and follow shifts in the complex relationships the sisters share with one another, their lovers, and, ultimately, their sense of nation.
Central to the film’s story are the interactions between the sisters and their lovers, Kainene’s English lover, the writer Richard (Joseph Mawle) and Olanna’s lover, Odenigbo (Ejiofor). Both sisters find themselves in the nascent Biafran state as a result of their work—Kainene takes over the running of their father’s company while Olanna teaches at university—and personal loyalties. At the start of the conflict, the sisters are removed from and seemingly uninterested in the underlying ethnic conflicts, though as the violence moves closer, their lives are changed forever.
In a recent interview with PBS, Adichie told host Tavis Smiley that the film was well done. “I like the art of it,” she said. “It captures Nigeria in a way that’s really beautiful.”
Shot on location in Nigeria, the director favors intimacy, warmed by sepia tones, natural colors and subtle textural changes in the scenery. Bandele highlights the contrasts between interior and exterior settings so that the landscape and environments become a vivid aspect of each scene. He also integrates archival footage of news stories and interviews of key political leaders, which helps outline the historical context for those unfamiliar with the war. Though pressing more on themes of romance, the film is a captivating and accessible adaptation, and serves to presents the complexities of an important event in modern African history.
Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.