Monday 23 June 2014

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

Half of a Yellow Sun is a fascinating, likable look at an interesting (and definitely under-cinematized) period in Nigeria's history: from independence in 1960 to the Nigerian civil war in Biafra in 1967 to 1970. Told through the perspective of a bunch of super-mod bourgeois intellectuals getting lost in the conflict, it's a stark, smart, sympathetic portrayal.

We start in 1960 with the fireworks and flash of Nigerian independence from the British. Twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) are sparkling and soooo bourgeois: speaking with posh British accents, rocking glamorous 1960s dresses (and hair!), and being all like, "Oh, thanks, Dad, but I actually already got a job." At one of the "1,001 soirees" the girls head to on independence night, Kainene runs into Richard Churchill (a handsome Joseph Mawle) - "unrelated to Winston" - who is our Resident White Guy Orientalist and falls for Kainene hard. Despite a wife? Possibly a wife. Ambiguity!

Assisted by helpful maps (a la Indiana Jones), the girls go off to start their careers: Olanna heading north, where she'll take up a teaching position at the university, and also hang with a bunch of fiery 1960s intellectuals of the Aimé Césaire/Frantz Fanon variety. One of which is the crazy handsome Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, or as we like to call him, Chiwwweeeeteeellll we loooove you). Odenigbo, mockingly called "The Revolutionary" by the other twin, is, okay yes, kind of your standard 1960s post-colonial leftist, what with the Malcolm X glasses and occasional rants about white guy's being racist and Americans being Cold War paranoid. And, yes, he's a bit all over the place sometimes. But he's also? Got a heart o' gold, of course.

Here begins a bit o' Pants Drama, which we'll skip over. It's melodramatic and kind of ridiculous and provoked lols, but made us - also - love them all so much more. Y'all with your pants problems.

After Pants Drama is mostly resolved (lots of "Don't sleep with my wife!" and driving off in a huff), societal shit really hits the fan, and we're celebrating another independence, this time for the new state of Biafra, seceding from the rest of Nigeria. The film had been efficiently peppering in all the intra-tribal tensions throughout, with people being all like, "Oh, but you can never trust Igbo folks, ya know..." and "Gosh, those Yoruba!" and so on and so forth. You wouldn't really notice it, until it explodes shortly after the Biafran secession into full-blown civil war. Things quickly go downhill. VERY VERY DOWNHILL.

Based on the popular novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, it's true that the film feels a bit rushed and abridged. Major points are left hanging, which could either be evocative anti-exposition, or just the need for speed. The newsreel interjections are a blunt way to Explain History to non-Nigerian audiences, but we appreciated them, since we honestly don't know much.

THAT SAID, gosh, we liked this movie. The performances were all charismatic and touching, even stupid ol' Richard, who really wrecks the party by being such a useless Orientalist (when asked why he's in Nigeria, he responds with, "Well, gosh, I always just loved Africa! You know, explorer stuff!" OH COME ON). Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton were phenom, though, and often much better than the material. John Boyega, who played the put-upon servant Ugwu, was also a revelation. The music and cinematography was eminently likable, with one scene of domestic escape from local war being particularly well-executed: a bunch of long takes, tracking shots from the left to the right of the dining room with a minor-keyed, discordant background score (similar-sounding to this) as the family runs around worrying about what to pack and put in the car while OMG BOMBS AND SOLDIERS.

A note about Chiwetel, also: oohhhh, Chiwetel. We've loved you since Serenity, so long ago. Chiwetel is put to good use in this, as his wide-eyed tempestuously humanistic vibe is a perfect fit for the role of fiery intellectual. That moral conviction would serve him well in any number of Gandhi-type roles, though it's the Gandhi-gone-bad ones - the people with the moral conviction, aimed slightly off - that are his best. E.g. his role as Luke from Children of Men. Even The Operative from Serenity was a man driven by an inner moral clarity. Too bad it was crazy!

Anyway, there ain't enough good movies made about Africa, especially recent history, especially complex stories that don't revert to poverty porn stereotypes where White Guy Explains Africa to you, as he stands amidst sunsets and acacia trees (ahem, cough). Thank God this one avoided that (even slightly subverting that stereotype by having Richard (a) be generally useless and peripheral, and (b) having thankfully only one White Guy As Witness scene, which was genuinely horrifying and felt not too cinematic). This film thankfully let Nigerians talk about themselves, let them tell their own story. THERE JUST AIN'T ENOUGH MOVIES LIKE THAT. So this film is valuable in and of itself. But! It's also a great film, one of those History Happens OMG epics that we would have enjoyed if it had been about 1960s France or 1960s China or 1960s wherever (because the 1960s? right? oh man). Recommended.

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