Telling stories from Africa in a way which doesn’t denigrate the continent has been a long discussion.
In amongst the recently resurfaced discussion regarding poverty porn, white saviourism and magical negroes, British Nigerian actor/director Chiwetel Ejiofor has released his quietly wonderful film The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind via Netflix. Adapted from the book of the same name, the film is based on the true story of William Kamkwamba, who., in 2001 at the age of 13 built a windmill to power an electric pump in order to bring water to his drought and famine suffering village in Malawi.
This being Ejiofor’s directorial feature debut, the actor took great pains to tell this harsh reality of a story in the right way demonstrating a great love and respect for the village and people he’s depicting. Casting himself as William’s father Trywell Kamkwamba, Ejiofor in this role lives up to the father’s on the nose name. He does indeed ‘try well‘ in a community which upholds men as the leaders when challenged by his son to change his way of thinking the wrangling he displays is relatable and emotional.
Trywell and his wife Agnes (Aïssa Maïga) have three children, William being the middle child, and are typically working hard to make ends meet growing crops to sell whilst ensuring their children are well looked after. Making his acting debut, Maxwell Simba as William is earnest and endearing in his portrayal as the brainy inquisitive child whose solace is found in attending class, soaking up all he can.
We are introduced to the close knit community, lead by Chief Wembe (the wonderfully and unexpectedly cast Joseph Marcell), who gathers the village’s men to discuss village matters, the main topic this time around is the pending famine, and the government’s plans to destroy vital land, ignoring the threat of famine and drought.
Resisting the will to sell up to the government Trywell does his best to keep his family fed, however eventually, William is forced to
Determined to maintain his education William sneaks into school with the help of a supportive teacher Edith Sikelo (Noma Dumezweni), and whilst doing so he is struck with the idea of how to build a windmill in order to create electricity to power a pump to supply water to the village’s much needed dying crops. After daring to break cultural tradition by defying his father’s bruised ego William rallies the support of who is left in the village along with his father to make history.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, is most definitely a feel-good film. Ejiofor chooses to allow the characters to speak both in Chichewa native tongue and English allowing for a natural flow of conversation. The narrative covers a breadth of issues, so at times could feel a little slow, but I’m not sure how else it could have been told. Ejiofor doesn’t rush this tale, taking time to give us nuanced scenes which combine the struggle between tradition and progression, the importance between life experience and the tools we gain from formal education and a young boy’s plucky determination to save his family, his village and himself from a fateful end. Ejiofor is gentle with the depiction of corruption within the government. Doesn’t shy away from it, but doesn’t beat us over the head with accusation or blame. We’re left to judge for ourselves.
The resounding feeling after watching this film is one of pride. You can feel Ejiofor’s pride in Africa, pride in Malawi and respect for the now adult Kamkwamba. We need more stories like this. Told by Africans (including of the Diaspora) about Africa, there’s something different about the delivery.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is available on Netflix now.