Show Hide image

“Riling up the divisions between groups has a massive effect”: Chiwetel Ejiofor on privilege, directing and the problem of identity politics

Chiwetel Ejiofor speaks to Helen Lewis about his directorial debut, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.

 

There’s a moment in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s new film that is so quick, and so understated, it would be easy to miss it. William Kamkwamba, a teenage engineering prodigy, wins the friendship of local labourers in his Malawian town by fixing their radio. As William coaxes the half-dead batteries back into life, a disembodied voice announces that a plane has hit the Twin Towers. But the local lads don’t care – they just want to listen to the football match.

Settling down into a chair in the lavish Bloomsbury hotel suite where Ejiofor is giving interviews to promote The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which he wrote and directed, I tell the actor that the moment resonated strongly with me. In 2016, I landed in Uganda’s Entebbe Airport soon after a terror attack in Belgium that killed 32 civilians.

Had I been at home, the news would have consumed me for days, fuelled by rolling television coverage. Instead, it felt very, very far away.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is set in 2001, when America and its allies were gripped by the fear of Islamist terror. In that year, Malawi suffered floods that devastated its harvest. In February 2002, a state of emergency was declared, and it was estimated that famine killed as many as 3,000 people.

Was the 9/11 moment a reminder to Western audiences, then, that our obsessions are not universal? “There was a sense of exactly that,” Ejiofor says. “That the world is dealing with this event and then there’s a group of people over on the other side of the world who aren’t directly impacted in that moment, but that event is going to have a significant impact in their lives.” And sure enough, in a later scene William’s father Trywell (played by Ejiofor) goes to an old friend to ask for help, only to be told that the markets have crashed across the world. No help is available.

The idea, then, was to show the butterfly effect – Ejiofor quotes the old adage that “when America sneezes, the rest of the world gets a cold” – and to place the film’s events in a context that Western audiences could understand. “The language of developed and developing, it’s a very unfair way of looking at places, as if they are behind us,” he says. “First of all, we’re all developing, and second, they’re in exactly the same temporal space that we are.”

In person, the 41-year-old Londoner is charming in a professionally nebulous way. His clothes – navy, navy and more navy – are luxuriously understated. Long, fluid sentences flow out of him, the rivers of prose effortlessly rolling past anything too controversial.

His family moved to Britain from Nigeria during the Biafran War of 1967-70, and he spent the early part of his career fending off suggestions he should change his name to get work. Ejiofor was told at drama school that he would end up playing Africans for the rest of his career. (His reply? “OK.”) That didn’t happen, and he has crafted a career taking in high and low culture, from Baron Mordo in the Avengers series to serious dramas such as 12 Years a Slave, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.

After we speak, there is a minor squall when the Labour politician David Lammy criticises television presenter Stacey Dooley for indulging a “white saviour” narrative by posing with a Ugandan child on a Comic Relief trip. Africans need to be shown as “equals to be respected, not as victims to be pitied”, Lammy later told the BBC.

In The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Ejiofor has done that. It should not feel remarkable that he has crafted a story about sub-Saharan Africa which is neither cloyingly inspirational nor suffused with dehumanising pity. The film is based on William Kamkwamba’s memoir of the same name, which follows his quest to build a wind turbine using parts scavenged from a local dump – and the frame of his father’s bicycle. The turbine powers a water pump, allowing his family to plant seeds out of season. How did William know what to do? He read about it in his school’s ramshackle library.

The story takes in huge themes – climate change, government corruption, religion, the power of education – and focuses them through the story of William and his father. “Be a man,” Trywell has to tell his son when the village elder is beaten up for questioning the official line on the famine. But that means something different across the generations. Where Trywell could only be a provider through physical labour, William can use his brain.

His father is proud, and pained, that his son can do something he could not: save their family. “You’re happy that your children are arrows into the future, but there’s also something bittersweet about that,” Ejiofor says. (He is currently in a relationship, but does not have children himself.) “Having to let go of the fact that you’re in control, and you were young once.”


Ejiofor’s new film tackles climate change

****

Admit it. A drama about a Malawian wind turbine does not scream “box office” to you. Its existence is down to the tenacity of Ejiofor, who appears determined to convert some of his star power into telling overlooked stories. As Baron Mordo, and Scar in the new Lion King movie, he is clearly a walking green light.

I assumed that Ejiofor’s decision to star in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, as well as writing and directing it, was a condition of getting the project funded, but he demurs. Ejiofor began to adapt William’s book eight years ago, when he was in his early thirties, and so assumed that he would cast another actor to play Trywell.

The development process was slow, but not painful, he says. “It all felt fairly organic and in the midst of it, I would go off and make films and do other things, and come back and write and go to Malawi.”

After several years, he ruefully acknowledged that he had now become old enough to play a man with a 13-year-old son. And practical considerations intervened, too. “I just felt: can I really put that extra pressure on another actor, knowing that I wrote it, that I’m directing it, that I’m the right age to play it, and so I’m talking to another actor my age, trying to get them to do essentially what I would have done.”

In the film, the actors switch between a Malawian language, Chichewa, and English. Was that a political decision too, to remind Anglophone audiences that the rest of the world doesn’t speak their language? “All of it’s an artistic statement in a way,” he replies, diplomatically. Then he recalibrates his position in real time: “All artistic statements have a kind of – or could have, maybe some don’t, but most of them have some political energy underneath them.”

I find the diplomacy frustrating, but understandable. He is both this project’s artistic driving force and its chief salesman. Although William Kamkwamba’s story is ultimately an uplifting one (restrain a tear when you see the real William dressed in his graduation robes over the end credits), the film inevitably portrays the developed world in an uncomfortable way. Most famines are made worse by human factors, and the solutions usually come from outside: NGO grants and government grain distribution. It is refreshing, maybe radical, to see a community able to help itself. Using Chichewa reinforces that feeling.

“Obviously, language is one of the most important cultural markers for anybody,” Ejiofor says. “And it points to the history of Malawi and the fact it was a British protectorate, but it’s so resource-poor it never went through the more aggressive hard colonialism that other places went through, and therefore didn’t fall into the traps of civil war, for example, once Britain had left.”

Today, the landlocked country, which sits between Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania, has a majority Christian population, but with a significant Muslim presence. “Riling up the divisions between groups has a massive effect when it comes to areas like Nigeria,” he says. “And then here’s Malawi, that has resisted the temptation… to turn it into ‘us and them’ politics.”

Part of the reason I’m dying to break through Ejiofor’s occasionally soporific fluency is that he is undoubtedly smart – he tells me he is currently reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a postmodern novel widely regarded as unreadable even by English professors. A discussion about feminism demonstrates that he is familiar with the dizzying array of modern iterations, from socialist to liberal to radical, but he carefully avoids committing news by adjudicating between them. The smooth, ultra-urbane carapace has a razorblade lurking underneath. No wonder so many people want him to play James Bond.

He describes himself as old school liberal, humanist and a “political optimist” who believes in “leftist politics, but not in an extreme form”. Perhaps surprisingly, he is critical of identity politics. “It’s that you’re categorised and put into a tiny little bracket and then you are forced to identify yourself in opposition to some other category or section of the society, to which I have no opposition,” he says. “I have no opposition to the white working class… the received information is that ‘this group is against migrants, so you should be against [them]’.” He criticises “the identity politics, in-fighting divisive nature of the political classes of the moment”. The only people who benefit, he thinks, are “these other powerful groups that sit over that and say, ‘well, I’m in the 1 per cent, I’m getting richer, everything’s totally rosy’, and these other groups are fighting among themselves.”

His own identity is complicated: his Nigerian parents were solidly middle class, a doctor and a pharmacist, and the young Chiwetel attended the fee-paying Dulwich College (fellow alumni: Ernest Shackleton, PG Wodehouse, Nigel Farage). He was on a trip to Lagos in 1988 with his father when a lorry hit their car. Arinze Ejiofor was killed; Chiwetel was in a coma for several weeks, and still has visible scars on his forehead and arms. He started acting at 13, and left the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art after a year when he was cast by Stephen Spielberg in Amistad, a drama about true events on board a slave ship in 1839. He has played Othello three times. He accepted an OBE in 2008 and a CBE in 2015. When he was cast in Nöel Coward’s The Vortex in 2002, there were suggestions it was somehow inauthentic to have a black actor in the role: at the time, he called that opinion “completely insane”.

Strangely, it was his experience of the rarefied atmosphere of Dulwich College which attracted him to the story of William Kamkwamba. When the Malawian boy’s family can’t pay his fees any more, he hides at the back of classes, desperate for the education he believes will lift him out of poverty. “I was struck by the idea of a 13-year-old sneaking into school,” Ejiofor says. “It just would not have occurred to me at that age. It was the sense of what that privilege means, and the distance between places, that made me feel like, ‘I really want to uncover some of this boy and this land and try to tell his story.’” Watching a film such as The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as a teenager would have “contextualised” the experience that he had, he thinks.

Ejiofor never seriously considered any career other than acting. He did toy with the idea of following his father into medicine, but that ended when he did work experience in a GP’s office and an elderly woman came in to have her blocked ear cleared. “I held the pan that collected all the whatever – I can’t even describe it – and I thought: this isn’t for me.”

He still loves the immediacy of the theatre – “a play, even a revival of a play, at a certain period can zone into a conversation that was happening yesterday, can zone into front-page news” – and after some time away, he is planning a “more concentrated theatrical period of my working life”.

****

His next project is another adaptation of a real-life story, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. As Anand Giridharadas describes in the New York Times, it tells the tale of two men in Newark, a city known for insurance companies and political corruption: “One man is Shawn, born to a sweet-talking, drug-pushing father named Skeet, who tries to keep his son from books, fearing they will make him too soft for a hard world… The other man is Rob, son of a feistily aspirational mother, who, while toiling in kitchens, wishes for her child the escape she never had.”

Shawn becomes a drug dealer, sleeping in a Kevlar vest in his car. Rob’s early promise leads to a benefactor funding his college applications, and he graduates from Yale. The twist is that both are the same man: “Robert DeShaun Peace, who went from a New Jersey ghetto to Yale to wherever men go after dying face down, knees bent, in a drug-related murder.”

It seems an obvious next step after the story of William Kamkwamba: another brilliant boy struggling to achieve his full human potential because of the circumstances of his birth. “In a world which is so starkly divided and unequal, that simply where some boy is born, the postcode they live in, that class they’re born into, has such a full weight on the life they can have – that is something we desperately need to address,” Ejiofor says. “Those issues are not at the front of the political agenda, and they should be. Social mobility is crucial.”

He is optimistic about the power of art to bridge those divides. It was sobering, he says, to watch the confirmation hearings of the US Republican nominee to the supreme court, Brett Kavanaugh. A college professor, Christine Blasey Ford, testified in front of senators that Kavanaugh and another man had sexually assaulted her as a teenager; she disclosed this information when he was one of several nominees, and then agreed to speak publicly, despite the inevitable death threats that would follow. Kavanaugh, who interrupted his own denials with regular sobs, was confirmed anyway.

Watching the hearings, Ejiofor got the sense “that there are two different realities… people are looking at this thing from two completely polar-opposite ways. For the first time I can really remember, there’s no connection between those two ways of looking at this event.” It gave him the sense that there was no longer a shared set of facts upon which to base an opinion. He compares it to the Oscars wrongly announcing the Best Picture winner in 2017: “You pick your own flavour, you pick your own reality. If you stop the tape early enough, La La Land won, do you know what I mean?”

Luckily, you don’t have to stop the tape early for William Kamkwamba to win. The Malawian, now 31 and a graduate of Dartmouth College in the US, has been out with Ejiofor on the promotional trail. His story shows, according to the actor, that we can “live a little bit in the solution”. 

“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is on Netflix now

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency