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Film Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

       Two views of the movie from our writers Samira Sawlani and Leslie Pitt


To make a film based on a book is often a poisoned chalice for filmmakers. Not only do they face the usual challenge of creating a piece of entertainment which will please an audience, but they have the added pressure of doing justice to the story upon which it is based and managing the expectations of its readers. So spare a thought for playwright, novelist, screenplay writer and now film director Biyi Bandele who took on the mammoth task of bringing to the big screen ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, the award winning novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The book stands as powerful literary piece which, through the eyes of four characters, tells the heart-wrenching story of the rarely discussed Nigerian civil war which took place between 1967 and 1970.
Before filming began, there was much controversy over bi-racial actress Thandie Newton being chosen to play the leading role of Olanna, a Nigerian woman hailing from the Igbo tribe. To give credit where it is due, Newton manages to delivers some powerful scenes. However, the question of whether a Nigerian actress such as Genevieve Nnaji (who has a small guest role in the film) should have been cast as Olanna is an issue worthy of discussion.

The film begins with excellent real life footage of the Queen visiting Nigeria, indeed the continuous usage of historical documentation as the plot develops gives the film context and an added authenticity.

The opening scenes show Olanna (Newton) and non-identical twin sister Kainene (played by the astounding Anika Noni Rose) as girls from a wealthy Lagos family dressed in the latest fashions and speaking in posh accents at Nigerian Independence Day celebrations.

half-of-a-yellow-sun-the sisters

Unlike in the book, where the sisters are a major part of a greater plot filled with a complexity of characters, the film is built around the relationship between the siblings and how it reflects the turmoil facing a country as it descends into war.

Slowly we see the introduction of other characters such as Olanna’s lover Odenigbo, the academic armchair revolutionary played by the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor, Richard, the white English writer who falls in love with Kainene, and Ugwu (played by John Boyega), Odenigbo’s observant yet silent houseboy, a character so central in the book, yet underused in the film.
Much focus is put upon Olanna’s relationship with Odenigbo, its many upheavals ranging from infidelity to disapproval from his mother (a show stealing performance by Onyeka Onwenu) who describes Olanna as a ‘witch’.  We see Olanna leaving behind her lavish Lagos lifestyle to join her lover in Nsukka and ultimately it is this decision which sees her living in Biafra and then being plunged into relative poverty, and her betrayal of Kainene which ultimately tears apart the relationship between the sisters. In the background we see the coming of war, subtle references to strikes and tribal tensions take place in the dialogue between characters, while simultaneously we are drawn into the everyday realities which they face.
By keeping focus on Olanna and Kainene, the director misses out on the opportunity to have created a masterpiece which would have done justice to the reality of post-colonial Nigeria and the Biafra war. But for all its weaknesses, there are many aspects of the film which deserve praise and are enough reason to go see it.

BombsBlow_HOAYSForemost is the chilling and raw depiction of the war, certain scenes of violence and chaos leave the viewer in shock at just how easily forgotten the conflict was despite its horrific impact. Some of the more emotionally ridden scenes have an atmosphere which is palpable.

The parts of the film which were filmed on location in Nigeria do full justice to the lush greenery and beauty of a country which is all too often associated with more negative matters, indeed one cannot help but relish in the aesthetics of some of the scenery.
The attention to detail and authenticity in terms of decor, furniture, costumes and the atmosphere in every scene is superb. The clothing worn by the female characters not only ooze accuracy in terms of history and fashion, but are likely to impress any follower of fashion.  Similarly the music transports one back to the era of Miriam Makeba and Eartha Kitt and draws in the viewer as every song or piece of music perfectly complements the scene it accompanies.

It is likely that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s success in 12 Years A Slave will draw in the crowds and although his fans will not be disappointed, the highlights really are the scene stealing performances by Anika Noni Rose, Onyeka Onwenu and John Boyega, all of whom are sadly not used enough.
Overall Half of a Yellow Sun delivers a few scenes of poignancy and raw emotion which would leave any viewer speechless.

By Samira Sawlani

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Half a Yellow Sun is an interesting yet flawed piece that employs its high quality cast to help bypass its flustering narrative. Through one can’t fault the films ambition; as an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed novel, the film’s structure and screenplay doesn’t measure up to the detail that is clearly set in the book.

Set against the Nigerian-Biafran civil war of the sixties; the film tells the tale of two well educated, politically opposed sisters whose personal decisions to stay in Africa, not only shock their family but set in motion a series of events and conflicts that dramatically shape their lives.

It’s clear from the very beginning that Half a Yellow Sun has a vast scope. The film tries to encompass three years of war and a variety of family dynamics as well as trying to showcase Nigeria and its varied cultural and political landscapes. We delve head-first into traditional versus modern family tensions, household, gender and wider politics and perspective on class with little time to breathe. However the screenplay is far too light to juggle the pins and first-time director Biyi Bandele doesn’t have enough of an assured grip with everything as characters, timelines and viewpoints skip and jump with only a small amount of rhythm. Certain characters feel more important than they appear, while others seem to disappear for far too long. There’s a sense that much of the film has been pared down to not only include as much as possible, but to keep an element of structure. Yet the film’s abruptly anti-climatic final third sits awkwardly with the viewer as the credits roll. There simply should be more to it.

half-of-a-yellow-sun-movieHalf a Yellow Sun’s strongest points land with the films well picked cast. Already on a roll with an Academy Awards nomination for 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a weighted amount of complexity to the ‘revolutionary left wing professor’ Odenigbo, while Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls, Princess and the Frog) provides strong opposition as capitalist sister Kainene. John Boyega shows his range in his slightly neglected role of Ugwu, and Thandie Newton, takes all of the plaudits in one of her strongest performances to date. In a display of intelligence and quiet dignity, Newton expresses the type of measured performance that makes you stand up and take notice of just how long the actress has been missing from Hollywood’s narrow gaze.

Half a Yellow Sun firmly places Nigeria in the forefront and does well to help demystify a country which has been clouded by reductive email scam memes and ungainly impressions by people who believe they’re Felix Dexter. There’s a clear desire to highlight the richness of a country with such a complicated history, while the melodramatic nature of the scenes will perhaps find an audience. Unfortunately Half a Yellow Sun does not weigh up to the sum of its parts and as opposed to a landmark piece, it may only weigh up as a footnote.

 by Leslie Pitt

 for a full list of the cast, click here