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TIFF 2013 Review - Biyi Bandele’s Adaptation Of 'Half Of A Yellow Sun' Misses The Mark

Reviews
by Zeba Blay
September 12, 2013 5:20 PM
14 Comments
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Before it even went into production, writer-director Biyi Bandele’s debut feature Half of a Yellow Sun sparked a huge casting debate. Based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the movie would focus on the stories of two sisters during the Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 60s and early 70s. The controversy came from the casting of the biracial Thandie Newton as Olanna, an Igbo woman. In January 2012, a petition was drawn up in protest of the casting, with the main gripe being:


“Igbo people, like any other people range in physical characteristics as well as complexion. However, the majority of Igbos are dark brown in complexion. Igbo people do not look like the bi-racial Thandie Newton. Thandie Newton is an accomplished and talented actress in her own right. However, she is not Igbo, she is not Nigerian, and she does not physically resemble Igbo women in the slightest.”

Of course, while debate about the representation of darker skinned women and Africans went on for a few weeks, the petition gained no real traction, shooting on the film was completed, and this year the film had its world premiere at TIFF. Was the petition well-founded? Did Thandie as lead work, or was her very presence in the film a slap in the face to the many Nigerian and Igbo actresses who could have potentially played the role (Nollywood star Genevieve Nnaji, for instance, was suggested)? It’s difficult to answer these questions because, ultimately, in spite of the issues of colorism that may or may not taint her presence in the film, Newton (excusing her bad Nigerian accent) is one of the best things about the movie.

As Olanna, Newton is wholly likable, the character with which we most identify and sympathize with. She forms a stark and fascinating contrast to Anika Noni Rose as Kainene, Olanna’s status-seeking twin who disapproves of her sisters relationship with the radically minded intellectual Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, turning in yet another superb performance this year). It’s this relationship between the sisters, and this tension, that serves as a sort of metaphor for the film’s historical backdrop. 

Beginning in 1960 with Nigeria’s independence from Britain, we follow Olanna as she marries Odenigbo and leaves her wealthy, well-bred existence in Lagos behind for Nsukka, and then to Biafra, all to the dismay of her ruling-class family.

The class tensions between she and her sister link with the tensions rising between the Igbo and Hausa peoples at the same time, as Olanna tries to reconcile her own background and upbringing with the revolutionary modes of her charismatic but complicated husband. It sounds like compelling stuff, and it is for the most part, but unfortunately it all plays out with a disappointing level of predictability, both aesthetically and narratively. 

Indeed, Newton provides nearly all the emotional heart of the movie, which at times is given to an almost procedural approach to storytelling - it would have done better to follow the novel’s nonlinear style of jumping from character to character, rather than a chronological narrative that drags at times.

As a debut feature from Bandele, Half of a Yellow Sun is certainly a good first film, but other than its great performances from richly drawn images, there is not much else to recommend in it. It comes down mostly to a question of storytelling: while it’s rarely necessary to hold a movie adaptation in thrall to its source material, it seems as though the movie ultimately lacks some of the inventiveness of style that made author Adichie’s novel so compelling. 

While the family dramas are interesting, they seem to take precedence over the war, and often the narrative relies too heavily on melodramatic dialogue and an emotionally manipulative score. 

While the appropriateness of Newton’s casting could possibly be ignored for the sake of a great performance, it’s a little more difficult to ignore the fact that, despite its engaging subject matter, Half of a Yellow Sun could probably have used a great deal more subtlety.


Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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14 Comments

  • john | October 17, 2013 1:12 AMReply

    this is the thing about reviews- one man's dead wood is another man's fire starter. after reading your review i saw the movie and enjoyed it a lot. a tremendous effort from what you yourself admit is certainly a good film for a first time director. i think your review could perhaps have reflected this fact a little more. for a website that is supposed to be supporting black film makers it is a shame that you show none for this director.

  • Dee | September 15, 2013 10:37 PMReply

    I have to say that I wasn't so concerned with the "It's not like the book" syndrome, but I definitely noticed that it seemed very play-like in the way it was blocked and set, and the pacing. I think that it definitely would have benefitted from the author's ear/eye and opinion, as well as from a director who was able to take better advantage of the medium.
    I really enjoyed the acting, as the reviewer said, though I totally disagree with her perception of Olanna, whom I found rather silly at times (thoughtless and childish) in contrast to her sister.
    I thought Kainene was wonderful, but I recognize that my feelings may just be literary hangover!

  • CareyCarey | September 15, 2013 2:51 PMReply

    "this film will suffer from "It's not like the book'' syndrome"

    Yep, that's a formidable foe for any film adaptation of a popular novel. The writers/directors have the unenviable task of recreating images, tone, pace emotions, etc, that, for the most part, are created in the minds of the individual readers. It's safe to say I hear a different tune, see a different face, hear a different "voice" and feel a different emotion when I read a book, than any other person who may read the same book. That said, I can't think of but one film that took me "there", but I'll save that "discussion" for another time.

    However, we will soon see how Mr. Steve McQueen handles the job. In fact, some reviews are in... and I lifted the following from IndieWire's Peter Knegt

    "Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" has won the Peoples Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was announced today. The film follows in the footsteps of "Slumdog Millionaire," "The King's Speech," "Precious" and "Silver Linings Playbook" by winning the audience-voted prize, which is usually a huge good luck charm in the Oscar race."

    Hmmm... looking back on some of the comments and the concerns of Thandie Newton and the director of Half a Yellow Sun, I have a few questions. Well, first, considering the early success of Steve McQueen's "12 Years", I wonder if those championing the film have read the book (I believe Tambay has)? I also wonder who really pays attention to the nationalities of the actors?

    Lastly, doesn't it really come down to the skill-set of the director? Granted, I believe a "black" person should... first and foremost, be at the helm of telling any story that heavily revolves around a black experience, however, I don't believe his or her nationality will be a major factor in the film's success, their skills will be the defining factor.

  • Said in LA | September 15, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    I just find it interesting, I understand why the feeling is so, towards Thandie Newton being cast as the lead role because she doesn't have any Nigerian roots, yet I haven't read any criticism of Anika Noni Rose being casted as a Nigerian as she has no Nigerian roots that I'm aware of. I wont make light of the concern, I just find it interesting....

  • jackie | September 14, 2013 5:41 PMReply

    it is an enjoyable movie. i saw it in toronto. but then i have never read the book. perhaps that helps!

  • Simone | September 14, 2013 1:31 AMReply

    My issue with Newton playing the roll of Olanna had more to do with the fact that I'd read the book and formed my own impression of Olanna based on Adichie's telling and for me, she just didn't cut it. Neither did Anika Noni Rose as Kainene, for that matter, but that is neither here nor there, because there is no rule that says that a character in a film adaptation of a novel should be an exact replica. I also felt a bit the way I felt when they cast Jennifer Hudson as Winnie Mandela, though I have come to understand some of the financial politics behind it all. I certainly can see how it would be considered a slap in the face in countries where there are thriving film industries with their own actors and actresses. In such countries, some might be inclined to assume that they were not the audience the producers had in mind. The author, herself, seemed perplexed by the reaction and the petition though she acknowledged that she was happy that Nigerians felt the need to take a certain ownership of a story that is of course theirs. Though the above review was not too detailed, I am in no way surprised that the film fell short because from the beginning I found it difficult to understand how they would manage to successfully translate that "thing" that makes the book so appealing to the screen. For me, it was not just the story or the history that did it, the beauty of it was buried in the way Adichie weaves everything together. I probably will still see it when it comes my all the same.

  • Said in LA | September 15, 2013 1:44 PM

    Great points, a smooth read...

  • Ike | September 13, 2013 9:01 PMReply

    Thx for the review.. Am I the only one missing the racist irony of the petition?? During Biafra there was a large migration of Igbo males out of Nigeria to Europe and America - many of whom met and married white women and had Bi-racial kids. The point is they look like Thandi Newton and are accepted by Igbo communities in Nigeria.. So it's a racist comment to say they can't play Igbos or don't look Igbo based on complexion.

  • LL2 | September 13, 2013 11:26 PM

    I think it was really more about Thandie Newton not having Nigerian roots. I saw some people on twitter saying that they would have preferred bi-racial Sophie Okonedo, who has a Nigerian father, to play the role.

  • Fediben Gal | September 13, 2013 12:03 PMReply

    Chimamanda should not have just sold the rights but demanded to have a say in the written script. It was a mistake to cast the director because although he is Nigerian, he could not phathom the terrible the suffering the war bought to the middle class. Not trying to be tribalistic. Just a fact. I am not encouraged to watch the movie. I hope in 10 years time someone does it again with a better script and director. Afterall Jane Eyre has been done how many times???

  • LL2 | September 13, 2013 6:13 PM

    I wouldn't compare this novel to Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is considered a classic in English Literature and has been around for over a 100 years. That said, maybe someone might do another production using all Nigerian leads.

  • Christian | September 13, 2013 12:54 AMReply

    I think this film will suffer from "It's not like the book'' syndrome. I enjoyed the screening at TIFF. It certainly was not the book, but then with only 2 hours to tell the story- I was not expecting it to be. I always thought it would be a difficult novel to bring to the screen and was pleasantly surprised. I thought Bandele did a commendable job of simplifying the story and telling it with an unfussy integrity. The audience's reaction spoke volumes to that, but then maybe they, like me, were not hindered by unrealistic expectations, or indeed had not read the novel and therefore were able to enjoy the film for what it was!

  • Jules | September 12, 2013 8:02 PMReply

    Casting Thandie was politically incorrect. That's a fact they can't twist. However, the petition was somewhere between over the notch and laughable. It's THEIR film, their investment not ours.

    Your review wasn't as in-depth as I expected it to be and wish it were cause I am a fan of your reviews and after the whitewashing it got on Variety I needed a more insightful review. Btw, how many scenes did Genevieve get please? I'd rather wait for DVD than go to a theater and watch her in a thankless scene.

  • ken | September 16, 2013 1:05 AM

    I saw the movie and I was very disappointed with the true suffering of the Igbo people during this terrible war and the movie failed to describe the true effects of the war. Also 3 million or more was killed during this war, however watching this terrible movie you feel as though this was a short lived war with very few casualties. The Biafaran war is second or third on the list in terms of genocide not once was this mentioned, at the very least this could have been mentioned at the end of the movie.

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