Roots manoeuvre: Chiwetel Ejiofor on Half of a Yellow Sun

The BAFTA-winning star of 12 Years a Slave tells us about his latest film, a sweeping historical drama set during the Nigerian-Biafran war, which found him shooting in his parents’ homeland.

Chris Fennell

Chiwetel Ejiofor has gone back to his Nigerian roots with Half of a Yellow Sun, Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel. Set in Nigeria during the Biafran war (1967-1970), the British-born actor plays Odenigbo, a politically motivated academic who flees his home with lover Olanna (Thandie Newton) as the tensions intensify between the Hausa of the north and the southeastern Igbo people.

This is the first time Ejiofor (whose parents are Igbo) has worked in Nigeria in a varied film career that has reached the height of its popularity with Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013). Filmed directly after Half of a Yellow Sun (Ejiofor flew straight from Nigeria to Louisiana), he won a BAFTA for best actor and was nominated for the Academy Award for his performance as Solomon Northup, an African-American free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. 

We spoke to him about working in Nigeria, comparisons with 12 Years a Slave, and life after the Oscars.

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

You’ve recently turned towards African stories – not just Half of a Yellow Sun but A Season in the Congo on stage as well. What attracted you to these projects, and Half of a Yellow Sun in particular?

I was attracted to Half of a Yellow Sun because of the story. Chimamanda’s book was something my mother had talked to me about years ago, when it first came out, and so I read it back then and I loved it. It’s a beautiful chronicle of this incredible time in Nigerian history that not only stands alone as a book but was also very personally involving for me because it detailed some of the historical experiences of my family.

Both my parents and my grandparents had very similar experiences – my parents were young but my grandparents were the same age as the characters in the book – so it was something that I could very easily relate to.

I was also drawn to it because I feel that a lot of the time people see African history and wars in a slightly abstract way, especially in Europe, as if the reasons and the details of it are constituted by something more obtuse than the way it is perceived in European conflict.

People tend to think of it very lineally in terms of political military diplomacy and for me it was very interesting to have a story that chronicled the war in exactly those terms. Therefore anybody watching the film is suddenly more familiar with these things, which are very similar in fact to what is going on now.

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

This film marks one of the rare times the Biafran war has been transferred to the screen. As someone with such a connection to Nigeria, did you feel a burden of responsibility to present this history faithfully?

Because of my family history it was something I was excited about. The historical events always had, I thought, a kind of epic, Shakespearean quality to them – these political machinations, dynamics, economics and misunderstandings that can slowly lead nations into these insane conflicts. All that was fascinating to me. I didn’t necessarily feel a pressure, outside the normal pressure of wanting to tell a story well. I found it really exciting to have the opportunity to be in Nigeria telling this story.

I understand you filmed this directly before 12 Years a Slave. What did you take from Half of a Yellow Sun into your performance in 12 Years a Slave?

I don’t know; hopefully they’re very independent. You have to start again with a new project and see what it is. Odenigbo is a very flawed character who is in some ways the architect of his own demise. He’s a revolutionary, a man who has incredible moral lapses in terms of his relationship, and is somebody who eventually comes to learn what all these things mean – the value of things, people, peace, the value of diplomacy and negotiation.

I think a lot of people found themselves morally and ethically compromised in that period of time. There was a gap between their revolutionary instincts, their knee-jerk reactions and the deaths of three and a half million people. What I loved about the book, and Biyi’s adaptation, is how these kind of wider geopolitical circumstances are discussed through the private emotional journey of these lovers.

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

What was it like working again with Thandie Newton? You’ve worked with her quite a few times.

Thandie is great. It’s the third time I’ve worked with her [following It Was an Accident (2000) and 2012 (2009)]. We were joking that we had been boyfriend and girlfriend twice and this is our first marriage. It’s always exciting and it’s great to have that level of familiarity already established.

What’s it been like to be exposed to all the extra attention from 12 Years a Slave?

It’s been an incredible time. In a strange way I’ve never taken it personally. I think Steve McQueen made an incredible and very rare film, and people have reflected on that, which I think has been amazing. I think everybody involved was very proud to have been a part of it and now we’re just looking forward to carrying on and doing the best work we can.

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