Half of a Yellow Sun Review

Genre: War Drama
Year Released: 2013
Distributor: Monterey Media/BayView
Origin: Nigeria/England
Running Time: 111 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 17+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Blood & Oil, Ije, Hotel Rwanda, Endgame, October 1, Lionheart, Before Your Eyes
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Half of a Yellow Sun is based on the book of the same name by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She’s originally from Enugu, Nigeria, but is currently based in America. Adichie has written books such as Purple Hibiscus, Americanah, and Notes on Grief. Some of you might know her for her Ted Talks such as “The Danger of a Single Story” which is one of their most-viewed videos or “We Should All Be Feminists” which was famously sampled by Beyonce in her song “Flawless”.

-This was the directorial debut of the now late Nigerian-British director Biyi Bandele who sadly passed away earlier this year. His other works include Fifty, Blood Sisters, and Elesin Oba which was his last work when he was alive.

-Hilarious in Hindsight: For a Nigerian movie, this unexpectedly would have three actors who would be in Star Wars movies. I’m not making this up. These actors in question are Thandiwe Newton (who plays the main character Olanna) would be Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Babou Ceesay who would be Lt. Sefla in Rogue One, and the biggest example would be none other than John Boyega who would be Finn himself in Episodes 7-9. Looks like the Force came to this part of West Africa, I suppose.

-Kainene is played by an American actress named Anika Noni Rose. You may not recognize the name, but you might know a few of her movies in her filmography. Rose has been in Dreamgirls, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Amphibia (in season 3), but EVERYONE should know her as Tiana from Princess and the Frog. This means Half of a Yellow Sun is the first movie I reviewed involving someone who directly played a Disney Princess. This is too surreal for me, especially given the subject matter of the movie or the fact it’s African cinema in general.

-History Bonus/Culture Bonus: The title refers to the Biafra flag during the succession of Eastern Nigeria during the 60s since the design in the middle features the top half of a sun design.

-One of the locales was Abba, Imo State, Nigeria. It is a rural area consisting of 24 villages, and the name is based on the root word for “father” similarly used in the Hebrew language. Interestingly enough, several families in Abba have PhDs, master’s degrees, doctorates, and successful businesses.

I’m finally back to reviewing. Did you miss me? It has been a rough few months and I’ve been busy in other fields, but I did miss reviewing films. I was concerned that I was losing my reviewing prowess when I haven’t written in months and only made Top 7 lists during this hiatus of sorts. Maybe people don’t care since I haven’t had too many exciting reviews going on. I do wonder about how much attention I’ll get with this one because I have some bigger names associated with this film such as Anika Noni Rose, John Boyega, and Chiwetel Ejiofor even though I reviewed one of his other non-mainstream movies with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Wait a minute, I’m reviewing a Nigerian movie. I doubt this will get much attention compared to my anime reviews, but we’ll see what happens.

Will this period piece offer some sunshine despite the dark subject matter?

Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in a newly independent Nigeria from 1960 starting with their first Independence Day before ending in 1970. The story begins in Lagos where the Nigerians are celebrating. Two Igbo sisters named Olanna and Kainene come back to their home country after getting educated in the UK and America (which also explains why they talk in English accents given the former) and are daughters of a wealthy chief that has profitable businesses in Port Harcourt. Despite having a massive prospective marriage offer to a finance minister, Olanna passes and is romantically interested in a university professor named Odenigbo who lives in Nsukka. He has some revolutionary and anti-colonialist leanings which clash with her family’s assets especially given Olanna’s father’s business and government connections or how her sister Kainene would be the main heiress to run things in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Also, Odenigbo’s mother (the local village mother who has some political sway) demeans her and assumes she’s some kind of witch because she wasn’t used to seeing a woman this educated or speaking English in a British accent instead of a Nigerian one. Olanna gets a sociology teacher job at the same university and tries to make connections in Nsukka. Unfortunately, tensions heighten with the characters cheating on each other and eventually the sociopolitical climate becomes shaken by Northern Nigerian soldiers slaughtering Igbos which kicks off the Nigerian Civil War and eventually the independence of Biafra in Eastern Nigeria. War and severe tribalism affect everything and everyone is fraught with tension with coups, ethnic attacks, and poverty. How will everyone try to live in this young country?

Before I begin my analysis of the film, I would like to credit The Critics Company for introducing me to the original author by linking me to her initial TED Talk which you should definitely check out. It’s good to check out something involved with one of her creations. Now back to our regularly scheduled reading. I will say this was competently shot. For a directorial debut work, the cinematography does shine. They filmed everything directly in Nigeria which automatically has authenticity instead of going to a film studio, green screening everything, or going to another country as a location double. Interestingly enough, one of Adichie’s requirements was to film it in her home country, and was proud that they did that. There’s a good mix of natural colors and tone. The scenery is colorful during the Independence Day parties and happier moments before becoming duller when the Nigerian Civil War really gets underway. It’s done in a realistic matter instead of some cheap color correction or pathetic fallacy to prove the point. That would look so tacky and superficial. The acting is well done. Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t get enough credit for his acting chops and especially his accent work. I know his parents are Nigerian immigrants, but I forgot that he was Black British watching him there much like how he pulled off a Malawian accent and spoke Chewa in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Anika Noni Rose did a great job and even though this isn’t the first time she played an African character (No 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency), she was quite convincing as she plays an affluent Nigerian woman who speaks in an English accent given her highly educated upbringing in the UK. The other actors did a great job with their parts such as Mama being domineering while also being superstitious, Ugwu being naive and subservient, and the machete gang looking extremely menacing while glaring at the camera. There was a lot of effort put into there. The music revolved around 60s Nigerian popular music with some traditional tunes. One odd example was “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt during a more intimate scene. This transitions into one story aspect that has to be brought up. Without getting too deep with spoilers, Odenigbo is exploited by Mama (keep in mind, this is HIS own mom!) by giving him tons of palm wine to the point where he’s drunk and gets another woman to sleep with him. Olanna hears about this and she eventually cheats on him with the English ex-pat Richard Churchill at his house. Also, Richard is in a relationship with Kainene who’s her own sister. Odenigbo apologizes for what happened, but she eventually owns up to what she did while he yells at Richard. Hold up! A cheating situation that actually shows that the woman who did some revenge philandering was NO BETTER THAN HER MAN?!? Give the director a god-blessed award for not giving into protagonist-centered morality on Olanna’s part and averting any vagina pass implications! It’s good that both characters are called out on it and have to own up to their actions. There was a good development between the characters as they try to survive the Biafra War.

Half of a Yellow Sun has moments that felt half-boiled. Despite approaching 2 hours, there were parts that felt rushed or redacted with the 10 years’ worth of story compressed into movie form. Some parts get explained over instead of shown and some of the time skips felt random. Kainene felt lost in the shuffle (that wasn’t a spoiler-related pun if you know the movie or original book) and didn’t feel important except for the beginning of the movie or when she returns from Port Harcourt to reunite with her sister. It also felt glossed over with the fact that running her father’s business would make her a war profiteer since that company was shipping arms to Biafra, but it seems handwaved and the gravitas of her employment really isn’t viewed. Sure, she helps out the refugees after the fact, but I think this should’ve had more drama with that character and how others would react. Some of the characters felt either one-note or bland like Mama being too superstitious to almost cartoon levels or her servant Amala who didn’t have much personality besides being too submissive to Mama. I could see some viewers who aren’t familiar with African history being confused about elements of the Nigerian Civil War. They do bring up tribalism and they mention in passing how Eastern Nigeria (the section of the country that would be Biafra) has a ton of oil while ignoring obvious overtones of why they would be under scrutiny by the West given how much money they could make with that natural resources. You do know there are plenty of countries who’ve been overthrown with puppet governmental leaders for just as much or less, right? I couldn’t believe that they missed that implication. One of the biggest criticisms of the film is the shaky handling of the source material. I haven’t read the book, but I did some research on the differences and there was a lot the movie didn’t cover. If they wanted it to be a fully accurate adaptation, it would have to be at least 2 3/4 hours or possibly a miniseries to fit everything in. Although to Biyi Bandele’s credit, some of the changes did make some of the characters better such as one example remaining nameless not committing sexual assault against someone else like in the book, so there is an avoidance of an obvious case of protagonist-centered morality. If you’re familiar with the original book and expect it to be fully or even mostly accurate besides basic plot points, then I suggest you look elsewhere.

This isn’t the best Nigerian movie I’ve seen and I can partially understand why this would get mixed to average reviews, I didn’t think this was a terrible watch. The acting quality was great and they captured the intensity of the Nigerian Civil War, but some things felt off with the plot getting abridged or some characters feeling a bit blank. There were some interesting pieces of social commentary like Odenigbo’s speech about colonialism and white supremacy, but some aspects should’ve been covered a lot better such as war profiteering, 1st world nation-funded coups, or why those ethnic tensions happened in the first place. As a historical drama/period piece, it could’ve explained a bit more about that event without being too didactic. Half of a Yellow Sun did have a lot of potential with the acting quality and cinematography, but it is hindered by a rushed narrative and inaccuracy to the source material for those who care.

I also made an achievement with this review. I did the whole thing without any jokes involving ex-Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra even though he got part of his stage name because of what happened in that part of Nigeria!

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like period pieces covering lesser-known events.
-Add 1 point if you’re a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor or Thandiwe Newton’s acting work.
-Subtract 1-2 points if the pacing is paramount in your storytelling.
-Subtract 2-4 points if you need your movies to be fully (or at the very least mostly) accurate to the books they’re based on.

-Quality acting performances
-Avoids protagonist-centered morality with certain characters (the couple cheating on each other is a big one)
-Competent cinematography

-Inaccurate to the original book
-Stop-and-start pacing
-Some characters were underdeveloped

Final Score: 6/10 points

Content Advisory: Half of a Yellow Sun is best left for older teens and up. There’s a minimal case of swearing, but that’s not the biggest issue of the film. This has the Nigerian Civil War as a backdrop and there are onscreen deaths both acted out and shown via real-life archived newsreels. The scene where Nigerian soldiers kill off people in the airport in certain ethnic groups is very terrifying and they even gun down some women execution-style at one point. Themes such as colonialism, tribalism, and secession are brought up. There are multiple sex scenes and some scenes involve nudity.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Fatal Fury is the property of Monterey Media. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is the property of Monterey Media.

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