And we cannot even play our own heroes
Ever since it was announced last year that Chimamanda’s novel, HALF OF A YELLOW SUN, was going to find a new life on the silver screen with foreign stars playing the major roles, the Nigerian internet forums have been abuzz with heated debates about casting foreign stars in a very Nigerian story. The film was due to have premièred at Fespaco, Ouagadougou (Africa’s own Oscars,) last January.
Hollywood has long fed on stories set in Africa where Africans are used as servants, carriers, hewers of wood, caricatured extras, etc. Examples abound – Rider Haggard’s stories set in Africa, Joseph Conrad’s THE HEART OF DARKNESS (filmed several times with spin offs like African Queen), Karen Blixten’s OUT OF AFRICA (featuring Meryl Streep in an Oscar nomination performance, 1985), THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, 2006, (the Oscar winning film where Forest Whitaker, an African-American, plays Idi Amin), or the television series THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY (2008) where Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose, both Americans, play the leading roles. All these are films based on books written by “them” about “us” and meant, primarily, for “their” viewing public.
Then there are stories that are our own African stories with our own narrative voices that have been “hijacked” by them with the Africans replaced by Hollywood stars. When I watched the South African stage musical, SARAFINA, when it toured Europe, I was thrilled when I heard it was to be filmed. Then they brought Whoopi Goldberg in the film (1992) and, thank goodness, the result was not half as good as the stage version that featured an all South African cast. But they needed Whoopi Goldberg in the film. No, it won’t do with us Africans alone. In the film version of Alan Paton’s African story, CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY (1995), James Earl Jones from the USA played the lead role. They have also made many films about Nelson Mandela, a true African hero, if there is ever one. But in all these films, our African hero was played by an African-American. Dennis Haysbert is Mandela in GOODBYE BAFANA, (2007) the true story of a white South African racist whose life was profoundly altered by the black prisoner (Mandela) he guarded for twenty years. HOTEL RWANDA (2004) is also the true story of a real African hero. But who plays Paul Rusesabagina, that African hero? Don Cheadle, an African-American who had to learn to speak English with a Rwandan accent. It was funny. HBO’s television drama, DEADLY VOYAGE (1996), is the true story of Kingsley Ofosu who was the only survivor of nine African stowaways who were murdered in cold blood on the high seas by the crew who wanted to avoid the fines they would have to pay for bringing illegal immigrants to France. Who plays Kingsley? Omar Epps, another African-American. At the recently ended Fespaco in Ouagadougou, the film that took the top prize starred an American hip hop artist, Saul Williams, who also won the best actor prize. Alan Gomis, the French-Senegalese director of the film (AUJOURD'HUI), could not find any “real” African to play the leading role in his film.
Now, it is the turn of Chimamanda’s novel set in the background of the Nigerian civil war. All the major roles are being played by non-Nigerian, indeed, non-African actors. Thandiwe Newton (black Zimbabwean mother and a white British father, born and brought up in London after living her early life in Zambia, played Beloved in the film based on Toni Morisson’s book of the same title in 1998) got the role of the more beautiful of the twin sisters, Olanna. African-American actress, Anika Noni Rose is cast as the enigmatic but likeable Kainene – the not so beautiful of the twin sisters. (Rose has the “misfortune” of playing African heroines who are supposed not to be beautiful. In the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, she looks prettier than her role character, Mma Makutsi, was supposed to be).
Chitewel Ejiofor plays Odenigbo. Do not be deceived by the name. Ejiofor was born to Igbo parents in the UK and attended British schools. John Boyega plays Ugwu, the house boy. He, too, was born and brought up in Britain. Hakeem Kai-kazeem, who plays Captain Dutse, is also British. All these actors may have African roots, but they are not, truly, African! They do not, naturally, speak English like “real” Igbos do.
The “real” Nigerians are found in lesser roles. Nollywood’s own darling, Genevieve Nnaji (one of the best paid in the industry, more than 80 Naija movie roles, singer, model), is cast as Ms Adebayo who has a minor role in the book. It is interesting that an Igbo born actress plays the only Yoruba character in the book. Singer Onyeka Onyewu (now in her 50s) plays Mama, the mother of the twins in another minor role. O. C. Okeje is cast as Aniekwana. These are the “real Nigerians” in the set up apart from the extras since filming was done in Calabar. Sometime early in the year, rumours (later denied) were rife that Genevieve’s parts had been cut out of the finished product and this set the Nigerian forums whirring again.
But the good news is that it is a “real” Nigerian who is the director of the film. Biyi Bandelé, who also wrote the screenplay, is a theatre director, novelist and playwright, born and bred in Nigeria where he started his artistic career. He has been working in the theatre in UK where he moved to in 1991. This is his debut as a feature director. Shareman Media and BFI (British Film Institute) have financed the project. Would Biyi Bandelé have been trusted with the role of director if he were still working in Nigeria?
This phenomenon of Africans getting the short end of things in the cultural/entertainment world is not limited to films. Take the production of literary outputs, for example. Only one black African (Wolé Soyinka) has, so far, won the Nobel Prize. And only one black African (Ben Okri) has won the Booker Prize. Both are Nigerians. Ghanaians are not doing so well here. The nearest a Ghanaian came to winning the Booker Prize was Esi Edugyan’s shortlisted book (the brilliant HALF BLOOD BLUES – it is true that Esi writes like an angel!) for the 2011 prize. While her first book in 2004 has Ghana in the distant background, even if set in Canada, the Booker shortlisted book has absolutely nothing to do with Ghana. (Esi was born and raised in Canada by Ghanaian immigrant parents.) Incidentally, another book on that year’s shortlist, written by a non-Ghanaian, had more to do with Ghana than Esi’s book. Stephen Kelman’s debut, PIGEON ENGLISH, is about Harri, who recently emigrated from Ghana with his sister and mother to London’s housing project. Interestingly, Kelman’s book was fished out of the slush pile but made it all the way to the Booker shortlist.
We have African prizes for literary achievement but they are not widely recognised outside the continent. Many of these prizes were set up from the West. They give us praise for writing our own books! There is the Noma Prize (Japanese), Caine Prize for African Writing (American), Henning Mankell Prize (Swedish), Grand prix littéraire d'Afrique noire (France) and some others. The prize monies for these awards are peanuts compared with the big international ones. It is important that Africans win the worldwide prizes – those that are not limited to Africans. The only African books Westerners read are those that have won some kind of worldwide prize.
Every African writer of note is associated with the West in some way. Wolé Soyinka attended Leeds University and now spends a lot of his time in western capitals. Our own very best, Ayi Kwei Armah, did most of his education in the US and went back to Columbia University where he obtained his MFA in 1970. Chimamanda moved to the US at age 19 where she went to university. Teju Cole (whose wonderful book, OPEN CITY, is such a delight to read) was born and bred in Nigeria but is now resident in the USA. Esi Edugyan is Canadian rather than Ghanaian. Ben Okri is resident in the UK. The Congolese born writer, Alain Mabanckou, is now a full professor at the French Department, University of California Los Angeles. Ngugi W’athiongo, Nurudeen Farah and many more have had extended stays in the US, if they are not still living there. Even the grand old daddy of African literature, Chinua Achebe, is ensconced in an American university. The white South African Nobel Prize Laureate, J. M. Coetzee, is now a citizen of Australia where he resides. And our president launches his book about Ghana in the US where he got help writing it.
The US, ever the land of opportunities, attracts the best of our writers. Write a book that sells well and some English or creative writing department in a US university will snap you up. They have huge grants for talented writers. Chimamanda won the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2008. It is worth $500,000! She was a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 2011-2012 – receiving money to concentrate on writing her next novel, AMERICANAH, due for release in May. (One would think after her Half of a Million Dollars grant and all the income from her books that have sold well, she will not need a Fellowship to write her next book.) Where in Africa is she going to be given that much money so that she can write books that many in Africa will not read? With our poor reading habits, who in Africa is even going to acknowledge her existence and treat her as the star that she is? The Ghanaian-British documentary filmmaker and novelist, Yaba Badoe, reports seeing her novel, TRUE MURDER (2007), beautifully displayed in a major Accra bookshop and offering to sign a few copies for buyers and being told by the staff she could not do that since it would deface the copies and render them unsalable!
Chimamanda is not the only fine writer in her generation to have come out of Africa. But she is, arguably, the best and, certainly, the most celebrated! She is the one whose work is most anthologized. The academic treatises on her work are mounting. Her words are hotly sought after by publishers for pre-publication quotes on new novels from Africa. She is also the one who gets invited to all the major literary conferences around the world. Open any literary magazine and you will likely see her pretty face beaming at you from the pages.
The US and, to a lesser extent, Europe will continue taking our very best in all fields of individual endeavour and there’s nothing we can do about it except to hope that our best do not forget us back on the continent. Well, they come back to organise writing courses and workshops to unearth other talent that is surely there, even in Ghana too. Chimamanda teaches writing workshops every summer in Nigeria.
Even though we may agonize over our incapability to play our own heroes, we should be glad that Chimamanda’s novel has not been left to the mercy of Nollywood. The Nigerian film industry may be the third largest in the world with 200 new “movies” every month putting it ahead of Hollywood! But they would have properly mauled Chimamanda’s story. Making a good movie takes a lot of money – lots of it. And it takes talent. Nollywood just does not have what it takes. A “small budget” feature in Hollywood costs about 10 million dollars, has lots of people working on it and may take years to produce. The most costly Nollywood blockbuster goes for a few thousand dollars and can take a few weeks from script to finished product. Chimamanda deserves better than that.
But the greatest advantage of using all those foreign stars is that if the film is to do well in Europe and the US, then audiences there will want to see stars they know, not Genevieve Nnaji. That is where the money is, not in Africa where the film will quickly be pirated around. And if the film is not full of sentimental sleaze and passionate scenes of revenge, Africans, long fed on Naija films, are not going to like it much.
There is some kind of justice in all this. Most of Chimamanda’s readership is in Europe and North America where people buy books and actually read them! How many of her own Nigerians have read her books? If her first book, PURPLE HIBISCUS, were not a set text at the WASSCE, how many Ghanaian youngsters would read it?
I could not wait to see the film before writing this piece but I re-read the book in order to write it. A good book easily lends itself to repeated readings with each new attempt more enjoyable than the previous efforts. This time, it was even more so for me since I had also read Chinua Achebe’s memoirs, THERE WAS A COUNTRY (2012). The old man can still write, but many non-Igbo Nigerians have described the book as full of lies and deliberate distortions! The book deals with the same events that Chimamanda so wonderfully fleshes out in her novel. If you read Half of a Yellow Sun a long time ago (or not at all), you may want to re-read it again in preparation for the movie version soon coming to a theatre near you...
Kofi Amenyo (firstname.lastname@example.org)