The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind Review

AKA: N/A
Genre: Coming of Age/Drama
Year Released: 2019
Distributor: Netflix
Origin: England/Malawi
Running Time: 115 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: TV-PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: William and the Windmill, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Catch a Fire, Queen of Katwe
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-This movie is based on the real-life story of William Kamkwamba and this was a book of the same name. Kamkwamba was born in Kasungu, Malawi on August 5th, 1987. Not to get into spoiler territory, but he was featured for his inventions in multiple places. He was interviewed on The Daily Show in 2009 and was on Time Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list in 2013.

-Kasungu is a town in central Malawi. There are over 58,000 people living in that town. Also, it was the home of the 2008 African Junior Chess Championships.

-Two languages are spoken in this movie: English and Chewa. This is the 2nd movie I’ve reviewed that uses that African language with the other one being the Zambian/Welsh film I Am Not a Witch.

-Chief Wimbe is played by Saint Lucian-born, England-raised actor Joseph Marcell. Some of his other works in his decades-long career include Sioux City, The Man In The Hat, EastEnders, but everyone would best know him as Geoffrey Butler from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Yes, this butler got to be a Malawian village chief in this movie.

-The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the directorial debut of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. He also acted as Trywell Kamkwamba (William’s father) and wrote the screenplay for this movie. Ejiofor was an alumnus of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art but had to quit after a year because of an offer Steven Spielberg gave him to be a supporting character in Amistad. Speaking of that school, some other alumni consist of Benedict Cumberbatch (funny how both of them were in the Doctor Strange movie), John Lithgow, and Ginnifer Goodwin to name a few.

-The soundtrack was handled by Brazilian composer Antonio Pinto. Some of his other composition work in movies and TV include City of God, Get the Gringo, Snitch, and Cronicas which I also reviewed.

We have another country represented on Iridium Eye. That is none other than the Southern African of Malawi. That country doesn’t get a lot of spotlights and if you were to ask any random person what they know about that part of Africa, they might recall that it was the same place where Madonna adopted children as well as making a documentary about that experience. I get excited whenever I get to review something from a country I’ve never covered before. To be honest, I wasn’t all that familiar with Malawi besides that or how I randomly discovered a band called the Malawi Mouse Boys during the lockdown. I also wanted to see this movie years ago, but I felt reluctant to do so for some shallow reasons that I’ll get to later. Okay, there’s that and being swamped with other films in that time, but this is as good a time as any to finally watch this movie based on a true story involving a young inventor.

Will this biopic film be as inventive as the subject it’s about?

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind takes place in Kasungu, Malawi starting in the year 2001. A middle school-aged boy named William Kamkwamba is living on farmland with his family while making a side hustle by tinkering with machines or fixing radios. William actually comes from a long line of farmers in the village including his father Trywell. He’s a longsuffering parent that wants his children to be educated, but he’s been struggling with getting enough crops to help pay for tuition. This eventually affects William into being dropped from school, but he bribes his teacher Mike Kachikunda into letting him use the school library in secret after mentioning that he knows how he’s in a relationship with his college-aged sister Annie. He becomes an autodidact in electricity and engineering with the books he reads. Unfortunately, Malawi suffers a major drought and famine which affects several people. There’s a lack of crops, hyperinflation of whatever’s there, and the current government is in denial of this tragedy even though it has affected other cities and even nearby Mozambique. People even steal from the Kamkwamba’s grain supply which devastated their food supply. William feels empowered to invent a windmill after researching concepts of win energy and hydroelectricity to help save the family field after succeeding with a small prototype that could power a portable radio. This doesn’t sit well with Trywell who has been eating less to make sure his family is fed, wants his son to plow the field with him, and not focus on “making toys” with his inventions despite it having a chance to save several lives. How will William’s windmill work as people either flee or die of hunger?

I’ve been putting off this movie for years, but I wish I saw this earlier. The story itself is very inspiring. I know some detractors are going to balk in saying that I only like it because it shows “Black excellence”, but those people can go kick rocks. It was awesome seeing William being so inventive and creative with making electric tools with scrap from the local junkyard. I wasn’t doing any of that stuff when I was his age and the fact he did that during a famine as well as in an impoverished Malawian village was certainly enthralling. That’s not even getting into his achievements that aren’t even mentioned in the ending with him getting educated in multiple countries and getting the attention of capital investors. Besides the story, I was very impressed with the production. If Chiwetel Ejiofor wants to continue as a director, then he should keep at it as I couldn’t believe that this was his first time in the director’s chair. The cinematography was top-tier with the crisp camera work, usage of warm colors to reflect the arid Malawian environment, switching to cool colors during the rain scenes, and using a natural filmmaking setting without feeling gimmicky or cheap. It’s not a movie that’s very flashy, but it gets the job done with clear filmmaking. The soundtrack was a nice mix of acoustic instruments and some African rhythms that weren’t overbearing. The ending theme was a nice mid-tempo work that incorporates the Chewa language. The acting was very impactful. It was the debut of Maxwell Simba and he really honed in on playing William with having this natural curiosity, but also emoting how he had to grow up fast in this tension-fraught environment. Aissa Maiga as his mother Agnes was brilliant with emoting the right ways and having some powerful dialogue. I didn’t even realize that this was the 2nd movie I’d seen this Senegalese-French actress in (the other one is Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako) and how it was one of her few English-speaking roles in her career so far. I thought she was Malawian or at the very least from an Anglophone part of Africa with how convincing her accent and command of the English language were. Even the brief scenes with the Chief were good and the scene of him calling out the government was quite effective.

I have to spend some time talking about Ejiofor for his role in this movie. I was actually a fan of some of his acting work such as his roles in Talk to Me, Children of Men, and (before Joss Whedon got canceled) his portrayal of The Operative in Firefly’s sequel movie Serenity. Major props to him for directing, writing and acting in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. I thought it was great how he put the effort into making the story work, learning the Chewa language, and pulling off a Malawian accent instead of using his typical English one. I’d even argue that his portrayal as Trywell was low-key one of the best acting roles I’ve seen him in. He’s able to portray this self-sacrificing, stubborn, yet loving father with such adept acting going on. There were so many good scenes and had wonderful chemistry with the other cast members. The scene of him breaking down with his wife before reconciling with his son should’ve won him an Oscar. It’s a shame that most people associate him with 12 Years A Slave. Or worse yet, he was in TWO crappy Disney movies the same year his directorial debut premiered. Want to know which movies and what roles he played in the House of Mouse? He was Conall the Dark Fey in Maleficient: Mistress of Evil and much to my chagrin with how poor this acting choice was…Ejiofor was the voice of the CGI not-live action remake version of Disney’s clone of an anime villain! I don’t have to name names, but there’s a reason why I didn’t make any jokes involving William’s actor’s last name or make an obvious callback to my Trashed review (given who was in that documentary) for this post, so you’re welcome. This was easily his best work as an actor in 2019 and certainly, a breakthrough year in being a triple-threat actor/director/writer much like Nate Parker was for Birth of a Nation (2016). I just hope that Ejiofor’s Disney endeavors don’t ruin his reputation in the movie industry as an actor or auteur.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind could harness more power at times and the solution isn’t a dynamo much like William’s windmill. While there is a complete story there, I felt that some characters felt a bit random in hindsight. Early on, there’s an interaction with Trywell and his brother Jeremiah as they argue about the latter’s gambling problem as well as selling the trees for deforestation purposes. There are consequences with the deforestation accelerating a flood that damaged the crops, but he’s never brought up again for most of the film. The subplot with Annie leaving with Mr. Kachibunda felt off. They do mention what happened in real life with their relationship before the credits, but it felt like a cheap writing-out of those characters. I also thought that the people at the local school barring librarian Edith Sikelo got off way too easy. The headmaster expelling William has no business leading a school. I get that tuition was hurting given the famine and people fleeing the village, but banning a student for TRYING TO LEARN instead of getting into severe fights, doing drugs, or some criminal stuff is un-freaking-called for! That scene just bothered me even when the Kamkwambas confront him because it reminded me of people I know at jobs with positions of authority who punished others for stupid reasons and get away with bad decisions just because they’re just “bossing it up”, yet never take accountability for their words or actions. This was borderline Karma Houdini crap right there. Even though this is a real-life story, let’s be honest that it had predictable moments especially the arc involving William making that windmill. As soon as the plot point with Trywell’s bike came up as the only way to make the real thing, I knew where this was headed with the pre-loaded conflict, revealing Trywell’s stubbornness, and the resolution of that arc. It’s certainly a feel-good ending that was earned, but I’d be lying if I said that I never saw certain plot points happening during my viewing experience.

I regret giving into those shallow reasons as to why I didn’t see this movie back then, and I hope you don’t swerve yourselves away from this biopic of this intriguing story. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind was inspiring, but never felt superficial to me and I’d be saying the same thing if it was fully fictional. The story was powerful and there was quality acting to back it up. Chiwetel Ejiofor needs to direct some new films and go back to playing roles where he can be taken seriously again (SAY NO TO MICKEY MOUSE!). Yes, I do admit that it gets predictable at times especially with the windmill storyline and some characters pop up only to not be seen again later. With that said, this was one of the better Netflix original films and a solid directorial debut for Mr. Ejiofor. Recommended.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you’re a Chiwetel Ejiofor fan.
-Add 1 point if you like inspiring biographies.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer grittier stories.
-Subtract 1 point if you like more unpredictable plots.

Pros:
-Masterful acting
-Amazing research into the original story and Malawian culture
-Top-notch cinematic work

Cons:
-The plot gets predictable
-Some characters randomly disappear
-Karma Houdini elements with the headmaster

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Advisory: Netflix gave this a TV-PG rating on their site which makes sense for the most part. There is brief strong language and oddly enough one example involves someone saying the whole BS word in English despite talking in Chewa for most of that sentence. The story is serious with famine as a major plot point and how it affects people with starvation (obviously), thievery, and government apathy. Some characters die even early on in the film. The chief gets beaten up very badly by the President’s security and his face is bloodied up. While nothing sexual happens onscreen, Annie has a questionable relationship with William’s teacher Mr. Kachibunda. Even though she’s roughly 18-20 years old, it’s implied that while she was in school that she got special treatment for getting good grades she may not have earned back then. Annie even argues with her mom after the grain storage was broken into that she and her mother could’ve been “raped and killed” even though it didn’t happen.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is the property of Netflix. The poster is from Clio and is the property of Netflix.

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