Half of a Yellow Sun
Directed by Biyi Bandele
An epic love story: Olanna and Kainene are glamorous twins, living a privileged city life in newly independent 1960s Nigeria. The two women make very different choices of lovers, but rivalry and betrayal must be set aside as their lives are swept up in the turbulence of war.
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★★★★½ review by Jeffrey Fearing on Letterboxd
I just saw the highly-anticipated movie Half of a Yellow Sun at Filmfest DC and it was a powerfully moving experience.
Based on the celebrated 2006 novel by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the film captures the lives of Nigerian professor Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his girlfriend Olanna (Thandie Newton) from the glorious thrill of Nigerian Independence in 1960 through the political and ethnic-conflict trials and tribulations of the Biafran conflict in ensuing years.
The opening third of the movie is a joyous and witty look into the lives of the educated elite of Nigeria through the lives of Olana and her sister Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), who is my early favorite for the 2014 best supporting actress Oscar. She owns her scenes in a dominating yet unshowy performance that leaves one hoping that American filmmakers find ways to cast her regularly and often. Rose, the Tony-award winning musical theater star of the movie Dreamgirls (2006) and the voice of the Princess in Disney's Princess and the Frog (2009), shines as a dramatic actress in ways yet to be explored on the American screen. These opening scenes play like a Nigerian version of a Terry McMillan novel, knowing and funny insights into the lives of middle class and wealthy Black folk.
I haven't yet read Adichie's novel, but it must have been sprawling and expansive, based on the episodic story-telling of the final 2/3 of this 2-hour movie, as many episodes portrayed made but cursory nods to events. A mini-series would have better served the novel.
As fun and engaging as the first third is, the middle and final segments are brutal, often terrifying. We the movie goers are left feeling as trapped and overwhelmed as the protagonists, fleeing from one threat of atrocity to the next. The Nigerian-born director Biyi Bandele has an assured touch with all three aspects of the film, the calm, the storm, and the aftermath. He is particularly adept at telling the personal stories, of drawing moving performances from his actors. Bandele, a British novelist and playwright, wrote the screenplay of Half of a Yellow Sun, his only feature film credit as a director. He also directed the Nigerian mini-series Shuga.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as usual, Thandie Newton is at her best in her best role in years, and Anika Noni Rose is a revelation. Also strong is Onyeka Onwenu as Odenigbo's fiercely determined village raised mother. John Boyega as Ugwu, the hapless, untrained house boy is largely a cypher, connective tissue tying the characters and events together. Joseph Mawle as Richard, Kainene's White British boyfriend is the side-kick this time, a refreshing flip of the script. He is there primarily to offer the European perspective on the unrest, from it but not of it, the liberal witness to the horror.
This movie is an emotional journey of considerable power. Those of us old enough to remember American news reports of Nigerian Independence in our Weekly Reader's in grade school, or who watched the horrific news footage and photos of Biafran refugee children with bloated bellies and emaciated limbs will appreciate the untold insight into the lives of everyday Nigerians from their perspective. Director Bandelele keeps the geography in context with helpful maps and graphics.
At once warm, funny, loving, intense, emotional, moving, frightening, horrifying, and enlightening, this is an important and unforgettable film, and a terrific one.
4-1/2 stars out of 5
★★★½ review by Ken Rudolph on Letterboxd
In recent years Africa has been the site of several tribal conflicts which were the result of the arbitrary admixture of cultures when the colonial powers created nations. Famous filmed examples from recent history: the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. This film, apparently based on true experiences, is about Nigeria. In the 1960s Nigeria was the site of a civil war between the Igbos of the southeast and the Hausas of the north. The Igbos seceded, forming the state of Biafra, with a flag embossed with a yellow half-sun (thus the film's title).
This film tells the epic story of a family of Igbos caught up in the war as the northerners fought to reclaim the lost territory. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a revolutionary Igbo professor who falls in love with a daughter of privilege (Thandie Newton). They are at the center of a group of friends and their families and servants who suffer greatly as the war encroaches on their lives.
I had never paid all that much attention to the Biafra civil war when it happened. So most of the background and the resulting genocide were unfamiliar to me, and frankly disturbing. But I did get involved with the characters in this film, moved by their plight and the horrors of a war I hardly knew existed. The film paints a large canvas, mostly successfully. Yet the big picture is often obscured by the less interesting family melodrama.
★★★★ review by MaryAnn Johanson on Letterboxd
Oh what a lovely film! As romance and history, this is by turns funny and tragic, suspenseful and celebratory, and never less than solidly entertaining.
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