by Wilfred Okiche
One of the surest things on the planet at the moment? Come Thursday next week, when all of the votes are in and the names are pulled out of ballot, Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor of Nigerian origin, will emerge a nominee for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars; moviedom’s biggest, brightest, most important awards ceremony.
Ejiofor will be up for his soulful, heart-rending but dignified turn as Solomon Northup in the unflinching drama, 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of the eponymous autobiography published in 1853 – about a free man who is tricked and sold into slavery.
In the wake of ‘awards season’ – as Hollywood likes to call the glad-handing, high-campaigning, fast-spinning period between November and February, – ‘12 Years a Slave’ has emerged the film to beat, sustaining the waves of momentum picked up after winning the top prize at September’s Toronto International Film Festival.
But ‘12 Years a Slave’ was not the only film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor to premiere at Toronto last year. It also was not the only film steeped in important black history. Lost in the intense buzz and self-congratulatory hype of awards season has been the compelling historic drama ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’’.
Based on the 2007 Orange Prize-winning book of the same title by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the film adaptation of the epic tome, directed by Biyi Bandele, had its world premiere at Toronto. Although independently produced and lacking the big name Hollywood clout of Brad Pitt (whose Plan B production company financed ‘12 Years a Slave’), ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ was no spring chicken, arriving with its own intimidating pedigree.
It was produced by the duo of Andrea Calderwood and Gail Egan, the formidable British filmmakers who had each tasted the kiss of Oscar (Egan with 2005’s ‘The Constant gardener’ and Calderwood the following year, with ‘The Last king of Scotland’), guiding both independent films to a combined worldwide gross of $131 million. Also, the plot for ‘HOAYS’, set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war – a pivotal time in the country’s history – as well as the literary bonafides of the source material, not to mention author, Adichie’s galloping profile in both literary circles and the pop culture made this adaptation one of Toronto’s hottest tickets. If not high, expectations were at least hopeful.
Until the films actually screened.
Once the audiences had seen both movies, it was immediately – some would say, abundantly – clear, which would be the runaway hit and which would suffer a slump.
While ’12 Years A Slave’ earned instant ecstatic reviews and glowing recommendation, ‘HOAYS’ would limp out of Toronto as that other Chiwetel Ejiofor movie. The screening was accompanied by measured ovation, but the reviews were mostly lukewarm or outright negative. Industry trade bible Variety would surmise: “Biyi Bandele’s attractive adaptation of Chimamanda’s bestseller is a diverting but surface-level saga that, true to its title, feels less than whole.”
The disappointment landed with a thud. Yet its woes continued.
Billed as the most expensive movie to come out of Nigeria with a budget of $8million (1.27 Billion naira), ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ may yet be in the black as, months after its worldwide premiere, it is still unable to lock down a major distribution deal; the only announcements being that Soda Pictures secured the UK rights while Leapfrog will be distributing in the Australian and New Zealand territories.
Only a year ago, ‘HOAYS’ would have seemed like a sure bet. With an unprecedented budget (at least by Nollywood standards), an international cast headlined by Ejiofor, Thandie Newton (UK) and Anika Noni-Rose (USA) and sporting the brightest of Nollywod talent in supporting roles – Genevieve Nnaji, Onyeka Onwenu, OC Ukeje – the excitement was palpable. After some flirtation with world cinema, Nollywood was finally ready to play in the big leagues. No one could have foreseen that the film being billed as the game changer in Nollywood’s second act would screen with less than unremarkable fanfare.
What went wrong?
“It is not like the book”
It is common knowledge that, in making the journey from page to screen, beloved stories – be they fiction from Ian McEwan or the Harry Potter series – tend to have some of their primary appeal lost in translation. This is because fidelity is a virtue more suited to marriages than to film.
Filmmakers are faced with the thankless task of slicing and dicing the books’ broadest scopes to fit into a 2-hour movie structure. The appreciation of a book is a singular experience, every portion of the book reading experience means something different for each reader. The movie is, at the risk of tautology, a different cut. Directors make a film of their own interpretation and audiences attack them for it immediately, never considering the impossibility of satisfying every person.
‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ director, Bandele readily acknowledges this much, admitting that in his journey to the heart of Adichie’s over-450 page text – which has become sacred for some, – he had to look for ways to maintain a compelling, credible and coherent story on screen.
Sacrifices were made and scenes slashed mercilessly due to budget and timing limitations. Where Adichie’s book has at least four major characters filtering the weighty events of the time through their different points of view, Bandele tells a linear story through the eyes of Olanna; everyone else restricted to her own visual field.
It is a necessary approach, but it is one that does not always yield maximum results – those who have seen the film confirming that it is less a film about an important war than a love story about two people, who just happened to exist in a time of war.
The consensus is; far too much dialogue and melodrama but too little action going.
Sure, the film still packs a wallop; much praise heaped on Thandie Newton, who grounds the film, delivering a career best performance with her interpretation of Olanna, a strong, sympathetic Igbo woman living in extraordinary times. Still, its ‘defects’ can prove off putting to the very-important American audiences groomed on shoot ‘em all blockbusters and summer tent poles.
Miss Newton might be basking in critical praise now, but time was when she was persona non-grata, at least, in Nigeria.
As soon as her name was announced to play lead in 2012, an online petition was immediately put together, demanding that the producers recast the role of Olanna because Newton, who is bi-racial (her father hails from England, while her mother is Zimbabwean), was, in the petition’s considered opinion, unsuitable to convincingly portray an Igbo woman.
The petition further discriminated on her skin colour, ruling that a light-skinned complexion as hers bore no resemblance to the average Igbo woman. More surprising than the obvious fallacy was the silence of the petition on Ejiofor’s casting as Odenigbo. Perhaps he was given a pass on account of his (relatively) dark complexion, but it is more likely the fact that – though his Igbo accent is equally as unconvincing as Newton’s, – his Nigerian roots are undeniable.
But if a cross-section of Nigerians were suitably worried, director Bandele shared no such fears. This was after all an $8million dollar production and he needed a name that would stimulate international interest. From the get go, Thandie Newton was his first choice, and he invested a few years, convincing her to put her faith in him.
It is not clear why she would dally though. Yes, Ms Newton received the right notices after being cast as the title character in Oprah Winfrey’s production of the Toni Morrison classic novel, ‘Beloved’, then found blockbuster success sizzling opposite Tom Cruise as token female lead in the second ‘Mission Impossible’ film. But her career cooled off after that, save for the striking 2006 supporting turn in the Oscar winning race relations picture ‘Crash’. After that she would go back to playing token female leads in films with Will Smith, Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry.
Newton who has spoken publicly about her identity struggles as a bi-racial actress in Hollywood should have been only too glad to find such a rich representation of a black female in film. As she later told Vanity Fair, last year, the part of Olanna is “the most sophisticated, modern woman’’ she has ever played.
And she climbed a few hills to get there. Reports from the shoot in Calabar have it that Newton brought a remarkable level of professionalism to her work; but like much of the cast and crew, she suffered from Typhoid fever, a bacterial infection transmitted by contaminated food or water; a disease she gallantly battled, refusing to take a day off.
“She (Thandie) was just there all the time,” Bandele told CNN. “I have no idea where she got the physical energy from, but she was there’’. “When you see her in that part of the movie, (where) she looks as if she was dying; she wasn’t well!’’
While his leading lady was fighting to keep her cool, Bandele was slowly losing his. A planned 8-week schedule was pruned to five weeks with numerous scene cuts demanded from him by producers focused tightly on budget.
Cast and crew members were falling; succumbing to malaria and Typhoid; the set finally shut down for two days as Bandele was being managed medically for Typhoid and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus – at the same time. Then there were the natural disasters. The production crew – at least 60% local talent – found itself caught in a tempest on its way back to Calabar one night, an experience severely nerve-racking for some.
When the brouhaha about casting the foreign actors died down, producers had to get actors to fill up the supporting credits. Perhaps to appease the local industry, or maybe to keep costs low, Nigerian actors were invited to audition. Too juicy to pass up, every one turned out to read for the parts.
Slowly but surely, the characters began to come alive. Stalwarts Onyeka Onwenu, Tina Mba, Zach Orji and Gloria Alozie joined the sprawling cast. In an interesting twist, Africa’s sweetheart Genevieve Nnaji, originally touted as one of the names to play Olanna or even Kainene, ended up with the much smaller part of Miss Adebayo, an old flame of Ejiofor’s Odenigbo.
Then it got worse.
Excitement was dampened a bit when rumours surfaced during post-production that Nnaji’s scenes ended up on the cutting room floor as they proved superfluous to the overall narrative. The first trailer seemed to confirm this development (“No, Genevieve!” Nigeria’s Twitterati were soon up in arms).
Evidently panicked, especially following a story confirming this on Nigeria’s most important blog by Linda Ikeji, the producers did not waste time with a second trailer – Ms. Nnaji clearly visible for all to see.
That other Chiewetel movie
The journey to the ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ film has been at least 7 years in the making.
Perhaps only a person with the proven persistence of Bandele could have seen the tasking process to the end. Bandele, (also a author, whose novel, ‘Burma boy’ was about the World War II experience) first came across Adichie’s work years back while serving as a judge on the Caine prize, perhaps, Africa’s most prestigious literary award. He was captivated with the story after meeting with Adichie in London.
In a revealing bit of the international politics intrinsic to such awards, the director claims he did everything he could to get Adichie on the short-list but his fellow panelists made sure she stayed off it, to avoid a Nigerian domination of the awards.
Clearly besotted by her story-telling, he soon secured the big screen rights, and then went about sourcing for money to make the film. With a final reported budget of $8million,‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ easily became the most expensive Nigerian film ever produced.
He turned to his partner Andrea Calderwood and, together with executive producer Yewande Sadiku (married to the intense Muhtar Bakare, whose Farafina first presented Adichie with huge success, to the Nigerian audience and still publishes all her books locally), secured a bond that enabled them raise the money. About 80% of the budget was raised from Nigerian investors with the UK’s Shareman media, Lipsync and British Film Institute financing the rest.
The investors were guaranteed returns from the expected international box-office earnings of the film. Sadly, that is now unlikely.
This year, Hollywood has witnessed a continued decline in domestic box-office grosses, many films, resorting to international market earnings just to break even. Therefore, a Thandie Newton-Chiwetel Ejiofor billing, unaided, may not muster heat enough to strike box-office gold in North America. The solution, for international markets, would be lusty reviews and awards season chatter.
Which is where ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ may run into some trouble.
Critical response has largely been tepid. All of the awards talk has gone to the staggeringly powerful ‘12 Years’, with no major film critic, professing deep seated love for ‘HOAYS’.
And can you blame them?
While the Biafra war is a major historical event, its lack of cultural ownership by its own country has led to a loss of intensity as a narrative over decades, ensuring that the story pales considerably, beside a film that confronts head on, the evils of slavery, racism and the world’s ugly past – this, whilst Barack Obama is yet the most powerful man in the world. Then there is the matter of finance. ‘12 Years’ director, Steve McQueen enjoys a considerably higher profile than Bandele and secured Brad Pitt’s high-profile production company, Plan B to back his film early on.
Mr Pitt generously appeared in a cameo role as an abolitionist and Plan B helped raise the $22million budget together with studios like River Road entertainment, New Regency pictures and UK’s Film 4. Fox Searchlight is the studio distributing ’12 Years a Slave’ in the United States while Summit Entertainment is distributing internationally, with Film 4 anchoring the UK leg.
‘HOAYS’ on the other hand, has had a more restrained run. Since its world premiere in Toronto and US premiere at the American Film Institute Festival in November, buzz has, to employ understatement, not been plenty, with major distribution deals still not forthcoming, save for UK, Australian and New Zealand rights. It is worrisome that the rest of Europe and even Asia are missing in the action. Those markets contribute such a significant chunk of US studios foreign box office earnings that, these days, films are altered to fit the Chinese audience.
Producer Andrea Calderwood’s piece de resistance, ‘The Last King of Scotland’, made on a tight $6million budget back in ’06, boasted a hair-raising, Oscar winning turn from star Forest Whitaker that has been declared one of the greatest film performances of the past 50 years. This, together with a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight pictures, guided the film to a $48million worldwide gross. Ditto Gail Egan’s ‘The Constant Gardener’ whose superb acting performances led to an Oscar win for actress Rachel Weisz in the supporting category and culminated in an $82million gross on a $25million investment.
With none of those factors present for ‘HOAYS’, both producers will find it difficult conjuring up such magic numbers. They have also shown no signs of a Plan B. Or C. Or D.
Show me the money
And for those wondering why Nigeria does not seem to figure much into the equation, it is because it doesn’t.
The local film industry is small fry; no matter how many premieres are hosted on the red carpets of the Silverbird Galleria, the country’s biggest film screening venue. For any meaningful return on investment, ‘HOAYS’ has to look far from Nollywood. To put in perspective, the highest grossing Nollywood movie ever, by box-office returns is 2010’s ‘Ije: The Journey’ with a reported gross north of 60 million naira. Produced at an estimated cost of $2.5million, it is no wonder the producer/director, Chineze Anyaeze announced in January last year that she was yet to recoup her investment in the film.
By the way, ‘The Meeting’, last year’s breakout film, only got 25 million naira, according to a statement from its publicist last week, selling only 50,000 DVDs at no more than 1000 Naira per unit.
The local film industry might continue to seduce the world with tales of its epic volumes shifted per week, but it remains pitifully underdeveloped and incapable of handling a project like ‘HOAYS’.
With less than 15 cinemas nationwide, there is no serious money to be made even when the cinema revenue-sharing formula in Nigeria is more favourable to the filmmaker. DVD sales are negligible as pirated discs cut into the little revenue to begenerated. No filmmaker can break even with a strategy dependent on selling movies to Africa Magic and iROKO TV. Until there is a guaranteed audience sizeable enough for films on this scale, Nollywood will have to keep churning out low budget, mind-numbing material.
It is no wonder then that HOAYS was not really made with the Nigerian audience in mind. This is also why it was easy for Bandele to ignore critics of the big casting decisions. What is an inconsistent Igbo accent to a viewer in Germany?
It was also easy for the filmakers to unceremoniously yank the film off the opening bill of the Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) which held in Calabar, November last year.
As is the Nigerian preference, no reasons for the pull out were offered, but the truth can be gleaned from the clumsy responses that trailed the decision. At first festival organisers expressed “shock”, then AFRIFF founder, Chioma Ude told Vanguard newspapers she took the initiative to replace the film with South Africa’s ‘Of good report’ after seeing ‘HOAYS’ in Toronto and discovering it was more of a love story than a war story. She then went on to hint that the executive producer Yewande Sadiku may have gotten a much better deal than the 3-year old AFRIFF was offering. A deal to the tune of 50 million Naira for an exclusive viewing. Who would resist, with the odds already faced?
The Lazarus Effect
It is entirely possible that it is simply due to a lack of hype that the film is being a little slow to take. And just.
But hype costs money and there isn’t much more of it to go around. But there may yet be an unlikely windfall, and Nigerians serve a God of miracles. If Ejiofor wins for ‘12 Years a Slave’ come Oscar night – and what a chance he has! – ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ may be pitched to distributors as the next Chiwetel Ejiofor movie. It matters little that his is actually a supporting role.
With Oscar glory comes some box-office clout and a renewed interest in future projects, even if fleeting. Sometimes a nomination is all that is necessary to kick start an inert career.
Whether Ejiofor wins or loses, he is currently one of the most talked about actors working and even though he doesn’t speak often enough – or at all these days – about his role in the film, ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ is still his work. And it is, all things considered, one he should be proud of.
Bandele and his team might finally have a chance to step off the tepid red carpets and leverage on a resurgence instead of slumping in the shadows.
There are morerounds to make, more markets to push into, and a possible second coming in the works. Do the filmmakers still have some fight left in them?
– Update: Reports from the handlers of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ indicate that the movie has finally secured a US distribution. YNaija exclusively gathered that Monterey Media secured the distribution rights on Monday, January 13, 2014.
Half of a Yellow Sun is produced by Shareman Media and BFI in association with Metro International Entertainment and Kachifo Limited in association with Lip Sync Productions LLP and A Slate Films. The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, will open in theatres early this Summer.
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