Anika Noni Rose Talks 'Half Of A Yellow Sun' & The Need To Revisit History

In an Okayafrica interview exclusive, Anika Noni Rose talks the film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'Half of A Yellow Sun.'

A film still from "Half of a Yellow Sun" Anika Noni Rose ©2012 Shareman Media Limited / The British Film Limited / Yellow Sun Limited Courtesy of monterey media.

With a slew of iconic roles to her name (Tiana in The Princess and the Frog, Lorrell Robinson in Dreamgirls, Emmie Thibodeaux in the Broadway production of Caroline, or Change, and currently Beneatha Younger in a Broadway revivial of Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin In The Sun), Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose is well on her way to cementing her position as one of the greatest actresses of our time. Besides already making history as the voice of the first black Disney Princess, Rose’s legacy will also stem from her ability to embody the vulnerabilities and strengths of the characters she plays on stage and screen in ways that resonate with audiences years later. Her latest role on the silver screen is in the motion picture adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s bestselling novel, Half of A Yellow Sun, in which she plays affluent, silver-tongued Nigerian socialite Kainene.

Okayafrica caught up with Rose ahead of Half Of A Yellow Sun's NYC premiere at the New York African Film Festival, and in a candid phone conversation, she shared her thoughts on being offered the role of Kainene, the consequences of suppressing history and the need for more diverse visibility in mainstream media.


A film still from "Half of a Yellow Sun" Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose ©2012 Shareman Media Limited / The British Film Limited / Yellow Sun Limited Courtesy of monterey media.

Jen for Okayafrica: What was your reaction to being offered the role of Kainene?

Anika Noni Rose: I was absolutely thrilled. I had read the book so I was familiar with the story, and I loved it. She was my favorite in the book and so I was extraordinarily excited.

OKA: What was the most challenging part of bringing Kainene to life and how did you prepare to fully immerse yourself in the character?

ANR: Well, I was in Calabar for two months and that was pretty much full immersion. But I think that probably the most challenging part was the fact that my dialect was different from everyone else’s in the film. I didn't have anyone else around me speaking in the actual dialect I was using. Even though I had some Brits around me, they didn’t really speak the same way that Kainene was speaking in that time period so I was sort of talking alone in that way.

OKA: Being that Half Of A Yellow Sun is one of the few instances where the Biafran War is presented to the world on such a massive scale, did you ever feel burdened by some sense of historical responsibility?

ANR: I didn’t feel burdened. I was pleased that I was able to be a part of bringing this story to the world in a wide release. You know, there are so many stories that need to be told, deserve to be told and aren’t. So I was very happy to be a part of this and I felt safe in a way because this is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s history. The director/screenwriter [playwright Biyi Bandele] is also Nigerian and was there for part of the Biafran War and had experienced that so I felt like I was surrounded by the truth of the situation. It wasn’t like I was doing a film where everyone is an outsider and you’re jumping in and trusting your research and their research and then hoping for the best. Sometimes it works out because people are extensive in their research, but there is a different feel of safety when you are surrounded by people for who that was a part of their history and they feel extraordinarily responsible to it and to their parents and to the legacy of all the people that were lost and all of the people that made it and pushed through and survived.

OKA: Going back to what you were saying about how certain stories are never told, what are your thoughts on the Nigerian film censorship board’s current delay of the theatrical release of Half Of A Yellow Sun despite the fact that the novel was highly celebrated in Nigeria upon publication?

ANR: Well, I think it’s supremely unfortunate. Nobody wants their dirty laundry to be aired out, however that’s not all that this story is and there are lessons to be learned from history. When we suppress it we put ourselves in a position to be on a path of repeat, so I think that’s it a dangerous thing when we suppress history. As well as disappointing and unfortunate, it's dangerous.

OKA: In a recent piece for The New Yorker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie penned her thoughts about the delayed release, stating, “Many of Nigeria’s present problems are, arguably, consequences of an ahistorical culture.” What was the reaction from the residents of Calabar during filming? Did some people seem reluctant to discuss it?

ANR: If you weren’t speaking to specific people who felt open about it, it was hard to find the history of the Biafran War right there in Calabar. There were bits and pieces but it’s not like there was a museum dedicated to that. All of the people I spoke to about it were open to discussing it, but many of these people were extras on the movie. However, I found that the people of Calabar were very excited about the making of the movie and about their history getting ready to be told so that’s a bit of an oxymoron. It’s a difficult thing, you know, the excitement of  ‘Oh, our story is finally being told, and its being told by one of us’ when there are people on the other side who are like ‘Oh my god. Don't let the world see.’ I don’t know who those people are because I didn’t meet them while I was there, but apparently they are a part of the censorship board (laughs).

OKA: Do you tend to gravitate towards roles where you get the chance to tell the stories that haven't been told yet or might be forgotten?

ANR: I’ve been lucky to be able to tell this story. I think that a lot of the work I've done has been somewhat contemporary even if it’s a period piece. I also think that history is much shorter in the US and has been suppressed and cleaned up and prettied in its own way here as well which is unfortunate. When you look at the history books, the history of Black America is not only extraordinarily truncated but extraordinarily whitewashed. And that is a severe disrespect, and an unfortunate situation. Unfortunate doesn't seem strong enough but you know it’s a rewrite. They’re trying to take the word slavery out of history books

OKA: As though it were just a blip.

ANR: Yeah, as if it didn’t happen. As if ’indentured servitude’ covers what happened. And that’s laughable. It’s laughable if they weren’t so serious about it.

OKA: Growing up, how important was learning about your history and your roots instilled in you?

ANR: My parents were very active in making sure that I was aware of my history not only as a black American, but also as a person of the African diaspora so that I was able to take in many other people’s histories and know that though they weren’t directly connected to me that does not mean that we do not share a link.

OKA: You’ve spoken before about the lack of diversity in the way mainstream media portrays African American women and in your Twitter bio is a list of all the varied roles you’ve played. My favorite thing about the list though is that you sum it all up with Disney Legend in all caps. Could you speak on the need for visibility and representation especially for young girls of color?

ANR: I feel as though I speak about it all the time. You can’t erase people as much as you try. Lately I’ve been talking about the lack of people of color in children’s literature and fantasy and that is major. I don’t think that people think about it a lot, but when you remove a child’s face from fantasy you've stumped them whether they realize it or not because that is the interruption of a child’s dream. That is telling a child that you are not allowed to dream the same way.

OKA: You’re basically stuck within one dimension.

ANR: Mmhmm, you weren’t here before and you won’t be here later. And both of those things are fallacies. If there was an elf, they would lead. If there’s a role for a wood sprite, sure as hell there’s a role for me. I think that it is very important for editors to realize that a story that may not feel relatable, and I use that word loosely, to them because they don’t see themselves in it— and what is the irony in that— does not mean that the story is not worthwhile and will not make them money. People want to read about themselves and about their friends. They want to read about their families, and none of those things at this moment in time are homogenous.

OKA: Several of the characters you’ve played have all been involved in some form of physical or emotional turmoil. Do you engage in any particular methods of self-care to make sure Anika is still present at the end of the day?

ANR: I go to the gym. Actually the show I’m doing right now is so physical I have to limit working out because if I did go 3 or 4 times a week, I’d disappear. Everyone would be like, ‘Where did she go, that’s just a head and feet.’ I meditate. I make Mondays, which is my one day off when I’m doing stage work, sacred. I don’t have appointments planned and I can wake up and rub my feet together any time that I need to or want to do that. I think that’s one of the most important things. Also, I have friends that don’t do what I do, praise God! In truth, I don’t want to talk about what I do all day everyday. It’s exhausting. You know, I’m like ‘What did you read though? Not a script! No! What did you read?’

OKA: Ok, so tell me what was the most interesting thing you did today that didn’t have anything to do with film or the stage. Tell me about your life.

ANR: Well, my day has been very short so far and it’s about to get very long. I had two shows yesterday so I woke up about 20 minutes before I spoke to you. I am getting my bathroom painted though which is really exciting! I’ve had my apartment for 7 years now, no… 9 years, and I’m finally getting the bathroom painted!

Half Of A Yellow Sun hits US theaters May 16th.

Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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