a portrait of Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rich Fury / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Expansive Vision of Africa

The 12 Years a Slave actor on writing and directing his first feature film, about a Malawian boy’s innovation in the face of famine: “There is no generic African space.”

In his latest film, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor toils with purpose. He tills flooded, and then barren, soil. The camera hovers above him as he stumbles, his knees slipping into the mire. In the Netflix production, which is also screening in select theaters, Ejiofor stars as the lead character’s father, the hardworking farmer Trywell Kamkwamba, who wrestles with both the land and with government authorities who have turned a blind eye to his village’s suffering.

And, for the first time, Ejiofor also directs. In his feature-writing and directorial debut, Ejiofor has achieved a rare cinematic feat. He’s made a widely accessible, masterfully shot film about a specific group of Africans that treats the struggles and triumphs of its characters as meaningful stories worth exploring with respectful pathos and narrative fidelity.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind follows Trywell’s family, and the community around them, as they grapple with the devastating effects of a famine that struck Malawi in the early Aughts. The price of grain grows more and more untenable amid political turmoil, driving the residents of Wimbe, Trywell’s agriculture-dependent town in central Malawi, into abject poverty. The titular boy, named William and played gracefully by the Kenyan newcomer Maxwell Simba, devises a method for restoring water to the barren landscape through a makeshift turbine. But his technological efforts are thwarted initially by the intractability of his material conditions and the desperation that this climate engenders, even within his own family. As Trywell, Ejiofor plays a man of conviction and duty whose anger at the conditions of the famine only surfaces later in the film.

The 41-year-old Ejiofor first encountered William Kamkwamba’s story 10 years ago, after a friend recommended the book to him. At the time, he’d been writing recreationally, but nothing had struck the actor as the kind of achingly human story he’d want to dedicate time and resources to developing. That changed when he read William’s memoir, which was co-written with the journalist Bryan Mealer. “It doesn't shy away from any of the challenges or the struggles or the difficulties, and it doesn't re-characterize any of that; it shows it very rawly, but it's so beautifully optimistic and hopeful,” Ejiofor said of the book when we spoke in New York recently. “And William Kamkwamba is a person who, even at that age, [had] made a decision to live in the solution to the problems.”

Though the Netflix film marks his first foray into feature screenwriting, Ejiofor has previously acted in weighty adaptations. In the director Steve McQueen’s 2013 Best Picture–winning historical drama, 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor played Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The actor, who won a BAFTA for this leading role and received an acting nomination for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar, imbued the long-suffering character with determination and an undeniable dignity. Half of a Yellow Sun—the 2013 adaptation of the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, set during the Biafran War of the 1960s—saw Ejiofor playing the revolution-hungry professor Odenigbo, whose ardor served as a proxy for the country’s political stirrings.

In each project, Ejiofor’s performance, and now his directorial vision, distills complex social dynamics by excavating the interiority of people experiencing and reacting to grave circumstances. Ejiofor is attuned to the power of these quiet catalysts, a driving factor in his decision to adapt The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Its protagonist is saying, as he puts it, “Okay, well, we’ve got all these problems, so what do we do about them, and how do we really actively live in the context of that?” He noted that this sort of initiative felt rare not just on the African continent but in narratives more generally. “So I just thought that was a deeply inspirational story on all of those levels—in the sort of microlevel of that community and William Kamkwamba in that community, but also in this very expansive way.”


The Netflix film spends much of its runtime setting up the circumstances of the famine and depicting its dire effects on the Kamkwamba family and other residents of Wimbe. Ejiofor paints a clear picture of structural economic woes, but the film doesn’t veer into tacky, overdone visual depictions of African poverty. It avoids the trap of sensationalizing African suffering for Western consumption. It resists the under-contextualized carnage of films such as Hotel Rwanda, as well as the Westerner-centric storytelling of war films such as Blood Diamond, Black Hawk Down, and The Pirates of Somalia. (Ejiofor’s adaptation also rejects the opposite impulse, of trotting out ostensibly modern trappings—technology, infrastructure, tourism—with the intent of dispelling stereotypes or explicitly making the case for Africa’s worthiness to Western audiences or travelers.)

Much of that nuanced characterization can be traced directly to Ejiofor’s commitment to William Kamkwamba’s story. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a film drawn from real-life circumstances, and Ejiofor was careful to contextualize the characters’ strife within the sociopolitical conditions that shape them. “I just always felt and recognized when I was reading the book that the struggles that they face aren't created out of air,” he said. “That famine, for example, was an economic famine. It was literally based on the fact that the price of grain was not regulated in any way. And so when the amount of grain went down, the prices of it shot up and froze out the farmers.”

He continued: “That’s a very specific thing; that’s not a randomized event. So it comes from these very specific and very detailed choices that people make, either at a governmental level, at a personal level—the decisions one makes about sending somebody to school, not sending somebody to school, the interpersonal dynamics of all of those things and choices.”

Ejiofor’s attention to the disrupting factors in William’s life doesn’t result in a bleak, chaotic story. Tragedy is conveyed via the disappearance of familiar joys; the economic strain caused by the famine, for example, eventually restricts William’s ability to continue attending the private school that his parents send him to at the start of the film. That first scene is a particularly touching sequence. Trywell and Agnes, William’s mother (played with tremendous humor and resolve by the Senegal-born French actress Aïssa Maïga), surprise him with a sharp new school uniform. The ecstatic teen then bathes and eagerly prepares for school. Ejiofor shoots these scenes with an eye toward the beauty of small things: the camera lingers over a well as William fetches water; the boy catches his own reflection in a jagged mirror. The light is warm, the bliss simple but not shallow.


For the British Nigerian director, lending gravity to these everyday moments felt particularly important. “What I wanted, what I was trying to find, was a way of telling this story visually that allowed the characters and allowed the people and the landscape to really own a kind of epic quality—to represent the fact that the Kamkwambas and this community, these people, lived very big lives,” he said. “The stakes are very high, and there is a kind of epic cinema scope to their lives.

“The way that we relate to those kind of rural African communities is very rarely within the epic storytelling tradition of cinema,” he continued. “So it was important to me to look at that and to think, Okay, how do I render this truthfully, but in an epic way?"To capture that sense of wonder, Ejiofor enlisted the Brazilian production designer Tulé Peak, who’d worked on the acclaimed 2002 film City of God. Peak and the cinematographer Dick Pope, whom Ejiofor had worked with more than two decades ago while in drama school, together sketched out an artful vision of the Kamkwambas’ world. “I was very moved to engage with … the way that the impressionist painters had depicted rural France, and the way that they had taken what people perceived to be this kind of underclass … and really repositioned that,” Ejiofor said of his influences.

With their pastel hues and gentle lighting, the impressionists had set rural Europeans “within this kind of magical landscape and beauty and complication,” Ejiofor said, a kind of beatification he thought was “due to the villages of Africa sort of broadly, but Malawi as well.” For Ejiofor, it was imperative that The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind capture the Kamkwambas’ story—and Malawi’s—but also that it “bring out that sort of palette and draw an audience into the sense of beauty of the place.”

Though Ejiofor had spent significant time traveling between Nigeria and London throughout his life, he didn’t go to Malawi until he had written a first draft of the screenplay. There, the director met the Kamkwambas and began envisioning what the adaptation might look like, and learning what local considerations he’d need to take into account. “I did a lot of traveling … [to] places that I knew weren't going to be part of the story, really, but just to get a sense of it,” Ejiofor said of the early development stages. “I started to galvanize the idea of shooting in Malawi proper and shooting on the locations where things happened, and that started to make sense to me on those first trips.”

Ejiofor used the time to not only familiarize himself with the technical elements of William’s story—for example, how exactly the turbine functioned—but also ensure that his vision of the country wasn’t distorted by his own perspective. For all the frustrations that African filmmakers (and audiences) might share when seeing Westerners’ stereotypical images of the continent, this collective exasperation is not a shortcut to familiarity with discrete regional and national histories. “It was [about] … knowing that there were some similarities with things that I had seen and experienced going back and forth to Nigeria when I was growing up, but understanding that there was so much that was different,” he said. “There is no generic African space, and so trying to get the specifics of Malawi and that village community, and even Wimbe and Kasungu and those regional spaces and distinctions, was really important.”


For William Kamkwamba, Ejiofor’s keen awareness of the stakes of African storytelling in Western cinema, paired with his willingness to learn about Malawi, quelled any possible discomfort with the prospect of his memoir being adapted. “I thought that even though Nigeria and Malawi are far apart ... he might have better understanding,” Kamkwamba, now 31, said when we spoke on the phone recently. “That's why I was feeling comfortable with him [doing] it, because of his connection with the continent.”

Once Ejiofor had William onboard, he collaborated with the Kenyan production company Blue Sky Films to shoot the film in Malawi, including Wimbe. The crew assembled a cast of actors from around the continent, with Malawian performers such as Lily Banda and Philbert Falakeza playing William’s sister, Annie, and best friend, Gilbert, respectively. Ejiofor cast local talent for larger scenes, a practical decision simultaneously rooted in his commitment to authenticity. During a panel at Sundance in January, where the movie premiered, he described filming a massive rally scene: “You could bet everybody there, all of the thousand extras … if you say [former Malawian president Bakili] Muluzi, everybody knows who you're talking about. You’re not trying to explain, Well, that was the president back then, and this is how you feel about him because there’s a food crisis.

Much of the film’s dialogue is in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s official languages. To translate his original script, Ejiofor worked with the U.K.-based Malawian artist and professor Samson Kambalu. As filming drew closer, Banda and Falakeza helped Ejiofor and the other non-Malawian cast members with their Chichewa lessons. “We were all in one hotel in Kasungu, which meant that nobody had anything else to do,” Ejiofor said with a laugh, adding that “the key directorial decision was to get the entire cast and crew in one space miles away from anything … Everybody was kind of keen to do something, so we were able to just sort of work on Chichewa and rehearse and do all of those things.”

The actors’ language acquisition particularly impressed William. “It’s not an easy thing to do while you are shooting [a] movie ... trying to learn a new language,” he said. “It’s very challenging, but I appreciate that they were able to learn.”

Even with his Chichewa honed, his Malawian history studied, and his filming locations scouted, Ejiofor faced one particularly elusive task: finding the Gule Wamkulu, the mysterious cultural dancers seen at various points throughout the film (including during Christian and Muslim funeral services). The director failed to meet the secret-society members the first few times he traveled to the country. But after repeated attempts at courting them, he was eventually invited to see the masked cultural figures. “[It was] one of those amazing sort of transport[ive] experiences, just being invited to go into the deep, deep spiritual heart of a place,” Ejiofor said of the encounter, which led to the Gule participating in the film. “For me, it was a wonderful way of just tying in the rich, cultural life of Malawi.”

The Gule Wamkulu, themselves steeped in rites of performance, came to see the filmmaker as part of their own larger tradition of artistic expression, Ejiofor said during the Sundance panel; he was honoring it with The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Eventually they offered a rare benediction: They unmasked themselves in his presence. It took the director 10 years, several drafts, countless flights, and a whole lot of work to gain that trust—but the Malawian figures’ openness is reflected in Ejiofor’s movie. It’s a refreshing departure from the most common flattenings of the continent, the sort of high-stakes empathy-building and narrative cohesion that film can achieve at its best. “That’s the charge and the challenge of diversity in cinema, and the language of diversity is that we’re able to tell stories from different points of view,” Ejiofor said. “So you’re not just witnessing something from the outside, but you’re engaging with storytellers who may have a bit more access to tell you the stories from the inside.”