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Half of a Yellow Sun

Wars are huge events that cannot easily be comprehended—historians make their careers on arguing interpretations of them forever after they have ended. That’s why storytellers who want to deal with them, in novels and films, often choose to put a handful of characters front and center to show how the war in question affects their lives.

The drawback, especially in movies, is that the opposite tends to happen: the war turns into a way to illuminate the characters rather than vice versa. That’s less of a problem than it often is with Half of A Yellow Sun, adapted from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel set during her country’s civil war in the late 1960s.

As the film opens, Nigeria has just received its independence from England, which colonized the area in 1901. As so often happened (Iraq, for instance), the political lines the British drew forced together tribes that had strong self identities. Such tensions led to the Igbo, one of the area’s dominant ethnic groups, trying to establish the breakaway nation of Biafra. When Nigerian forces were unable to seize the area back, they blockaded it from trade and supplies. From 1967 to 1970, as many as 3 million people died, largely from disease and starvation.

Our lens into this struggle is two sisters, Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose), daughters of a wealthy family who have been educated in England. Olanna falls in love with an academic, Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is passionate about casting off the effects of colonial rule. Kainene takes over her family’s business and marries Richard (Joseph Mawle), a British writer.

Although Adichie’s novel was an international best-seller, the film had a less than epic budget, so much of the war is depicted with the use of newsreel footage. Look for Frederick Forsyth, in the years before he became best-selling novelist, as a BBC correspondent. A shot of young boys training to be soldiers is chilling in light of the horrific deeds of Joseph Kony thirty years later.

First time director Biyi Bandele saves his resources to depict the flight of civilians from their villages into refugee camps, where they struggle with desperation. It’s not wholly satisfying as a history lesson—taking a few minutes to scan the Wikipedia entries for Nigeria and Biafra before seeing the film is recommended—but it’s given life by strong performances, particularly Newton and Ejiofor.

Watch the trailer for Half of a Yellow Sun

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