Half of a Yellow Sun
History on the edge
Half of a Yellow Sun (2013) opens in Lagos, Nigeria, on October 1st, 1960: Nigerian Independence Day. Based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel, this is a film that ambitiously endeavors to capture the tumultuous era of Nigeria's civil war. Directed by the late Biyi Bandele, the movie presents a tapestry of love and loss set against a nation torn apart by conflict. It’s also not a great movie, too burdened by the attempt to juxtapose the ups and downs of various relationships against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war. But where else will you get to watch such an authentic attempt to tell a Nigerian story?
The film is propelled purely by its stellar cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a subtle performance as Odenigbo, the charismatic and intellectually driven revolutionary. He wavers in temperament of a man torn between his ideals and the harsh realities of war. Thandie Newton's portrayal of Olanna, Odenigbo's lover, is equally compelling, gracefully capturing the character's strength and vulnerability. Anika Noni Rose shines as Kainene, infusing the role with a fierce independence and resilience that is both captivating and inspiring. John Boyega does a great job in a supporting role, bouncing between accidental viewings of trysts and scurrying away with a believable air of “Are you fucking kidding me.”
The film's pacing can be uneven, with certain scenes dragging on longer than necessary while others feel rushed. The appreciable effort to show pre-civil-war Nigerian social and casual life has the unfortunate double effect of making the plotting feel stilted. However, if one wanted to be generous they could imagine they’re watching a Ryusuke Hamaguchi film. Voila: perfect pacing. This uneven rhythm makes the ten years of the film feel jarring when time seems to jump ahead arbitrarily. BUT: you’re still getting an earnest attempt at a Nigerian story.
Despite the shortcomings, Half of a Yellow Sun remains a visually stunning and rich experience. Bandele's direction is marked by a keen attention to detail, with each frame meticulously crafted to evoke the mood and atmosphere of the era. The cinematography captures both the beauty and brutality of Nigeria's landscape, serving as a powerful backdrop for the characters' struggles.
The film offers a thought-provoking exploration of themes such as identity, nationalism, and the legacy of colonialism. (The movie isn’t in English for our sake: it’s the lingua franca of Nigeria.) Through the lens of its characters, the film confronts the complexities of nationhood and the enduring impact of historical trauma. It challenges viewers to reckon with the human cost of war and the ethical dilemmas that arise in times of crisis.
The film's greatest strength is the way it lulls you, almost bores you, into a sense of comfort or apathy before shocking you back into the reality of the history being told. If any aspect of this film warrants more significant examination, it’s the very thing that many negative reviews claim: that the plot turns feel too jarring. Maybe how civil war unfolds is jarring. The film's melodrama mirrors the melodrama of our everyday lives, and then it blows it up, making us feel as uncomfortable as you might expect.
Half of a Yellow Sun may falter in certain aspects, particularly in its dialogue and pacing, but its strengths lie in its powerful performances and evocative imagery. For those who overlook its flaws, this movie offers a moving and thought-provoking cinematic experience that lingers long after the credits roll. Where else will you find such an easily accessible film that gives you insight into the Nigerian and African experience?
Half of a Yellow Sun
Written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Biyi Bandele; Directed by Biyi Bandele
Recommended way to watch (at the time of publication): Stream it on Kanopy or Hoopla for free with a local library card, or find it on Peacock.
You’ll like this if you like: The Woman King (2022), Gone with the Wind (1939), or Incendies (2010)