Director Biyi Bandele's adaptation is a true passion project for 12 Years a Slave actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and his co-star, Thandie Newton.
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31 Mar 2014 - 4:46 PM  UPDATED 6 Oct 2015 - 4:58 PM

British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, still on screens in the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, has gone back to his Nigerian roots for his friend Biyi Bandele’s film, Half of a Yellow Sun, based on the 2006 novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Ejiofor plays Odenigbo, a Nigerian academic who together with his lover, Olanna (Thandie Newton), decide to teach in a remote town in eastern Nigeria, home to the Igbo ethnic group to which they belong. Their life is thrown into turmoil during the Biafran War (1967-1970) and we watch as they try to survive. As it happens, the parents of London-born Ejiofor are Igbo as well.
 
“I had always wanted to make a film in Nigeria, to shoot a larger budget film,” the 36-year-old explains. “This is obviously not a huge budget movie but it is in the context of Nigeria. I had known Biyi Bandele for years and we'd often hung out in bars or cafes around London daydreaming about going out to Nigeria to make a film. Totally coincidentally, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes this amazing book and Biyi ends up adapting it, so suddenly things are possible. It was very exciting for both of us to be able to go out there.”
 
One of the ways you can tell someone is an Igbo is that their name begins with Chi, Ejiofor explains. “Chi in Igbo means God. Chimamanda comes from an area which is close to where my family is from, so I instantly knew that this was going to be a book that I was going to connect with. It surprised me how connected I was with it. I interviewed my grandfather about the Biafran War six years ago before he died and his story of what happened to him was amazing. Chimamanda's story follows very similar beats to my grandfather's experience. Odenigbo is probably around the same age my grandfather was at that time, so I felt very connected to him. My mother was 13 at the time of the war and she was travelling around, they were on the run, they were fleeing from the federal soldiers as Biafra was being strangled to death. So the movie was a very emotional and connected kind of journey for me.”
 
Did he feel that the film’s emphasis on the love story could limit the importance of the war?
 
“I think it accentuates the stories of the war, because it takes something that is very big and involving a lot of people and makes it very specific about what it does to these two people. One of the beautiful things about what Biyi has done is that you have two people who are in this complex relationship where they are being driven apart and their love for each other is very confused. And then you have a war and in the process of that war you recognise that these people have become very, very bonded. I love that, that turning something that is big and tragic into something that is actually personal and as intimate as a couple falling in love and just seeing that in the context of this whole wider mess.”
 
Odenigbo may be modern in his ideas and lifestyle, but he remains strongly bonded to his roots, says Ejiofor.

“People in Nigeria during this period would appear to be very modern. My grandfather was an accountant for the mining corporation and he would tell stories of mingling with the English and the Portuguese who were working there, and how they’d all go out and get drunk, they'd play golf—and this was after Independence,” he notes. (Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom in October 1960.)
 
Thandiwe Melanie ‘Thandie’ Newton on the other hand is the daughter of a Zimbabwe princess and a British father. The London-born 41-year-old, whose first role was as a teenager in John Duigan’s 1991 Australian movie Flirting alongside Nicole Kidman, has been acting in films for 24 years and has appeared in numerous blockbusters. Half of a Yellow Sun may not be a blockbuster, but it’s a sweeping epic, she says.

“It’s Gone with the Wind in Nigeria. It’s set over an eight-year period from the early '60s until the end of the Biafran War. That’s a huge feat.”
 
Does she consider her character rebellious? “She’s not rebellious, she's very strong-minded. That’s what education gives you: a perspective that allows you to see the bigger picture. For her, the idea of Independence for Nigeria made perfect sense. She comes from the elite in Nigeria, which has always been there and always will be there. It’s very modern, sophisticated and very wealthy and that hasn't changed. I related to her in the way she handles her personal life, and the way she survives what she overcomes and accepts in order to survive. She experiences some very extreme life-and-death situations, but it allows her to appreciate the value of love.”
 
Newton is a huge fan of Adichie’s novel. “Chimamanda has made an indelible contribution to African history and the friendship I was able to develop with her has been a huge blessing. Her voice as a modern African woman is exceptionally important. To me, she’s a regular girl, and we need to hear more from regular people who we can admire and respect.”

“It’s Gone with the Wind in Nigeria. It’s set over an eight-year period from the early '60s until the end of the Biafran War. That’s a huge feat.” 

Newton’s mother is one of the Shona people from the former Rhodesia. “My mum’s a princess still if you continue in that line of thought,” she explains, “but colonialism destroyed all those lineages. She remembers people walking past where they lived in rural Zimbabwe and they would stop and bow their heads because they knew Tabatha, my grandmother, was there.”

It wasn’t like the kingdoms were huge, of course. Newton notes there could be 20 tribes in one area. “We’re talking hundreds of kingdoms unlike in England, which has one king and one queen. But they were still important in their region. Of course, their universe was huge and it takes four days to travel from one to the next.”
 
When Newton grew up in England she recalls how she maintained a fantasy life in order to cope with coming from a mixed race background. “I knew that there was a very different life outside of the one I was living. In Zimbabwe I’d colour it magical where everything is perfect and where I was accepted and even celebrated. Of course, I went to Zimbabwe when I was seven and I was told, ‘You go back to England where you belong because you're white.’ The single reigning thing in my life has been to discover that we are all the same. There’s nothing like being expelled from one place or rejected—it just turns your world upside down. But the best life experience I think is to have to break away from what you think is normal and look at things in terms of humanity. With the world shrinking as it is the only way to move forward is to see ourselves as all being in the same boat. It felt confusing at the time but kids move on. It became more confusing in my teens and I had very low self-esteem. The irony was that I was living on the edges of an incredibly successful circle, walking red carpets. Ultimately, the great fortune of getting in this business early was that my adjustment into adulthood was accelerated.”
 
Newton has not let acting in get in the way of her personal life. Happily married to British filmmaker Ol’ Parker, she has just given birth to the couple’s third child, a son after two daughters.
 
Would she like to be as famous as Kidman? “I have been at different times. I've won awards, I've been in movies that have made more money than any other movie that year. I've been around a long time. I feel like I've done it all. I met Nicole when I was 16 years old. She was already 21, very successful. She'd made Dead Calm and was a huge star in Australia. It was my first experience of celebrity and people were following us around. It was the strangest thing I’d ever witnessed. Off the back of that Nicole met her first husband.”
 
Newton can’t say Tom Cruise’s name?

“Nicole’s been married twice so it’s out of respect. I was with him in Mission: Impossible II and Interview with the Vampire. I've been around a long time!"
 
Interestingly, Half of a Yellow Sun is Newton’s third movie playing Ejiofor's love interest. “We just keep coming back for more,” she chortles.
 
The in-demand Ejiofor left the Half of a Yellow Sun Nigerian set and headed direct to Louisiana to film 12 Years a Slave. “I remember emailing him after he left because we were still shooting for another month and asking if it was hot there and him replying that it was even hotter,” Newton recalls. “Our set was like 40-something degrees. Still, Chiwetel’s kind of strange. He's actually a hyper human, if there is such a term. We were shooting at such a speed and at one point he fell and cut his hand quite badly on a shell, but in the space of the afternoon it healed up. It’s so bizarre. He regenerates so quickly. He has an extra life in him or something and you can actually feel it with his performance.”

Half of a Yellow Sun, available for a limited time at SBS On Demand

Half of a Yellow Sun Review