The sweep of recent African history is the backdrop for “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a romantic epic set in the decade after the independence of Nigeria. Tribal conflicts, the lingering effects of colonialism which forced disparate tribes together under one national flag, the cynicism of the ruling classes, the naivete of academia, all play out as Nigeria celebrates its freedom from British rule only to descend into civil war.
Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose play Olanna and Kainene, aloof, haughty and beautiful sisters, daughters of the ruling class who figure they can go their own way now that the yoke of British oppression has been lifted off their shoulders.
Not that they’ve been oppressed. Not personally. In 1960 Lagos, they wear the high fashion and sport the posh accents of the Brits. Like African Kardashians, they are giving “our fellow Nigerians something to aspire to.”
Kainene may pretend to rebuff the advances of a white academic (Joseph Mawle), this “modern day explorer of the Dark Continent.” But she’s curious, and figures she deserves no less than someone from her class, even a white man.
Olanna is smitten with the impeccable taste — French wines, Western furniture and cars — and fiery rhetoric of Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whom her sister dismisses as “your revolutionary lover.”
Odenigbo has a job at a provincial college and Olanna goes there to live with him and teach. But his traditional, village mother (Onyeka Onwenu) doesn’t approve.
“There is a WITCH in my son’s house!” She’s not being metaphorical, either. She thinks the city woman in designer dresses has bewitched her son.
But they all soon have bigger problems than the soap operas that make up their love lives. “Half of a Yellow Sun” is the symbol on the flag of Biafra, a breakaway state that fought a civil war for its independence from newly oil-rich Nigeria in the years after British rule. Odenigbo is the classic academic idealist, trumpeting the reasons for independence at wine-besotted gatherings with his colleagues.
“The only authentic identity for an African, is his tribe!”
He’s like those Spanish Civil War fans of an earlier generation. He blames the British for all his new country’s ills, insists “There won’t be a war,” and then there is.
Biyi Bandele’s film, based on the Chimamanda Ngozi novel, immerses us in the refugee’s plight in such wars — fleeing the front lines as the fighting closes in, witnessing the savagery of tribe-on-tribe (Igbo vs. Fulani) genocide, and getting by with the help of a loyal servant, simple servant (John Boyega ).
It’s a conceit of such stories — think of this as an African “Gone With the Wind” — that the female characters are more intuitive, expecting the worst from the politicians, instantly realizing when their man is cheating.
It’s a bit of a muddle and a touch too soap operatic. But Newton, Rose and Ejiofor give their characters and this story just enough pathos to make the history lessons sink in.
Whatever virtues that the novel lost making the transition to the screen, “Half of a Yellow Sun” has the authentic feel of history as it instructs us on the ways tribal prejudices were converted into class prejudices and how a Biafra, and more recently, a Rwanda can still happen on a map where the boundaries were drawn, long ago, by European rulers playing empire games with a continent.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and sexual content
Cast: Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anika Noni Rose, Joseph Mawle
Credits: Written and directed by Biyi Bandele, based on the Chimamanda Ngozi novel.
A Monterey Media release.
Running time: 1:51
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