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.