At the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, Chiwetel Ejiofor earned glowing reviews and best-actor-award speculation for his work in the staggeringly powerful adaptation 12 Years a Slave. There was another historical drama featuring Ejiofor at the festival, however, that was just as engrossing but because of its lack of A-list producers and ensemble cast, or perhaps simply a lack of hype, flew slightly under the radar. Adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun features Ejiofor in a supporting capacity to the magnificent Thandie Newton, who stars as a free-thinking Igbo aristocrat who trades her social status for a radical academic (Ejiofor) during the war. Directed by the Nigerian-born novelist and playwright Biyi Bandele, the film is gorgeous, evocative, and easily the highlight of Newton’s achievements as an actress so far.
To hear more about the movie, we sat down with the BAFTA winner earlier this month in Toronto for what turned out to be an emotional discussion about Half of a Yellow Sun, Newton’s struggle with identity in England, where she grew up, and Hollywood, and how actors have the power to connect us all.
Julie Miller: What appealed to you about playing Olanna?
Thandie Newton: Honestly, she is the most sophisticated, modern woman I’ve ever played. In what ways? You watch it and you will immediately recognize this woman. And she is an African woman who you will totally identify with. For me, it is totally refreshing seeing these movies where I actually feel represented for the very first time. In mainstream movies, there are the friends that are African American, but there is not integration and diversity. It drives me crazy. It’s like, “Come on!” I feel like we’ve been dragging [this issue] up a hill for ages. But with Half of a Yellow Sun, this is one of the times where I felt like, “Hallelujah.” This is a movie where you won’t think, “Oh, these are Africans,” but you will be completely engaged no matter who you are.
You’ve described Half of a Yellow Sun as being like Gone with the Wind set in Nigeria. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Well, this is all happening when the Biafran War [or the Nigerian Civil War] kicks off, and that was really run by the intellectuals and the academics, the world that Olanna has chosen to be in. And even when she has a chance to leave, to get on a flight that costs god knows how much, to join her wealthy parents to get out of there, she chooses not to because she is involved in this struggle that comes from the roots and the people. That’s why it is like Gone with the Wind. Because it is about the complete transformation of a person as well as a place.
In what ways do you relate to Olanna?
My family is from Zimbabwe. Nigeria and Zimbabwe are as different as Nigeria and Switzerland. There is a pride and a strength and a sense of place with Nigerians wherever they are in the world. She is very much a Nigerian woman. I wouldn’t describe myself as a Zimbabwean woman. I am intellectually connected to Zimbabwe completely. But in terms of my heart, soul, and gut, and where I draw my pride and strength from, I was disconnected before I was even born. So I look at her and want to absorb the sense of place that she has, which I’ve kind of never been entitled to, I guess, growing up in England. A lot of ignorance and confusion, not from me, but in perception. Can I be British if I am Black? It’s a thing!