A decade of war for a nation and personal conflicts between individuals form the premise of Half of a Yellow Sun, the debut feature from director Biyi Bandele which he adapted for the screen from the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is an ambitious adaptation to condense into feature length running time because there are a multitude of issues and characters to cram into the narrative, whilst also trying to engage those unfamiliar with historical events and the situations that unfolded as a country became divided regionally, politically and emotionally. However, it succeeds through careful construction and exemplary acting.
In many ways this is a film that deals with conflicts of both the past and present – it links Nigeria’s colonial history with its independence as well as internal political differences in the form of tribal and religious struggles. But it is not a political film that particularly promotes or criticises a particular viewpoint; these conflicts provide a background to a very human story about a family.
The film opens with one of the defining moments in Nigerian history, 1960, when the country gained independence, having been a British colonial territory for the entire twentieth century until that point. It is a moment of jubilation, but that joy is short lived, because matters later take a decidedly graphic turn when civil war breaks out in a manner that turns the country around in terms of its peoples’ attitudes, wealth, aspirations and hopes. Half of a Yellow Sun follows this history through the lives and loves of two privileged sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose). Kainene has sought to become a businesswoman and she falls in love with an Englishman, Richard (Joseph Mawle), whilst Olanna surprises her family by moving in with her boyfriend, Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is an academic doctor (which later becomes source of confusion when at times of deep crisis a neighbour assumes him to be a doctor of medicine). His wages are sufficient for them to employ a helper in the shape of young Ugwu (John Boyega), and the means to afford good brandy. Odenigbo and Olanna’s relationship is not as solid as it could be, a matter not helped by his mother’s unabashed and vocal disapproval of her. On one occasion Olanna arrives home to find that not only has a drunken Odenigbo had intercourse with another woman, the woman becomes pregnant and rejects the child. However, Olanna is compassionate and the couple decide to adopt ‘Baby’. And amidst their personal struggles, the family become caught up in the civil war that threatens relationships, even within families.
Half of a Yellow Sun places its narrative in a historical perspective not only through the use of reconstructions of real events that link to the protagonists’ lives, but also with its use of archive news broadcasts, linked by the characters engaging with situations through tuning in to short-wave radio. This places matters in a broader context so that when the revelations of the emerging military coup and rebellions are shown, they appear to be all the more shocking; never exploitative, but occasionally savage in their instigation. The first major on-screen horror occurs at an airport when Richard views military executions apparently for sectarian reasons which seem to be uncoordinated but all too brutal nevertheless. This gives the film a tense perspective which carries through into later scenes where living an apparently normal life, such as attending a wedding or travelling with a little child, becomes a dangerous activity. The ambition of the film in placing the characters in the context of a decade of upheaval, most notably because it includes the conception, birth and raising of a small girl in the context of the creation of the secessionist state is a constantly engaging throughout the running time.
Visually the film is well constructed, from its design and location settings to its careful use of single-shot camera work when moments require focus on particular characters and their responses to occasionally harrowing situations. Just shy of two hours, Half of a Yellow Sun is a film that embraces the history of a country and its people while telling the story of its two central women from the perspective of a bourgeois and then savage background.