A hair-braiding salon can be a fascinating place. Between itchy scalps and painful braids, there are stories of migration, connection, and division amongst its braiders and patrons. In her third novel, “Americanah,” renowned author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brings this setting to life, using it as connective tissue for a highly engrossing diasporic story of a young, self-assured Nigerian woman named Ifemelu who emigrates to the United States from Nigeria to complete her college education, only to discover what it means to be “black” in America, what it means to be a black immigrant in America, and how these worlds collide and merge in everyday life.
The African braid shop is one manifestation of that convergence- a place where Senegalese and Malian women stand in sticky-hot heat, taking requests from a number of different patrons- a giddy white girl, a young black American woman whom they gossip about when she leaves, and an irritated Ifemelu, all representing layers of racial commentary, and serving as platforms for Ifemelu’s experiences in Nigeria and America as she prepares to return home after years in the US. Through this shifting narrative, we meet memorable characters: Ifemelu’s youthful Aunty Uju who bears a child for a corrupt Nigerian general, a black American academic named Blaine whom Ifemelu meets on a fateful train ride, a white, upper-crust love interest named Curt whom Ifemelu meets while working as a nanny for a rich, white family, and most importantly, Obinze, her first love and confidante, a highly inquisitive man who married the wrong woman.
At its core, “Americanah” is an expansive love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, which also goes into careful detail of his life as an undocumented immigrant in London as Ifemelu explores her newfound American identity. Viewed as a place of opportunity and refuge when they were kids, America becomes something very different to them as their lives diverge.
So, how would the novel translate to the screen? With the news that Lupita Nyong’o will be adapting the novel, with David Oyelowo co-starring, one question is already off the table: Who would play Ifemelu? I can’t think of an actress I’d want more in this role. Ifemelu inhabits a brazen, unapologetic demeanor that is often absent from female characters in film and literature. She is a feminist/activist for the digital age, calling out things and people in her popular blog about race in America. This blog is one of the many exciting areas of this novel, which both tracks the emergence of blogging in pop culture, and serves as a sounding board for Ifemelu.
The length of the book is another consideration. At almost 500 pages, it has an epic quality that lends itself to cinema. The narrative is grand and sweeping in a way that mirrors other powerful adaptations like “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Namesake.” As in the book, the film would be held together nicely by the African braid shop, and could utilize repeated flashbacks to orient the audience to Ifemelu and Obinze’s journeys in Nigeria, America, and London. While voiceover is a highly contested device, it could work wonders as the narrative shifts between different worlds and perspectives. It would also be exciting to hear the blogs spoken over some scenes. The book is almost written with these cinematic considerations in mind, and there’s a certain narrative grounding that the braid shop and other recurring locations offer. They are specific layers of the greater discussion on race and culture that Adichie initiates in Ifemelu’s character, and her relationship with Obinze.
But like all adaptations, some scenes and characters wouldn’t make it into the final film and instead of spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it, I’ll leave it to you to determine who would be left out. But there are certain characters who’d definitely make the cut. Blaine, for example, is a complex love interest who could come alive in the form of Michael B. Jordan. Obinze is another textured black male character who could be played by a newcomer or a more known actor like David Oyelowo (although it’s unknown what role he’s signed up to play) or Chiwetel Ejiofor. Other characters, like Aunty Uju, her son Dike, and Ifemelu’s friend Ranyinudo will provide ample opportunities for the rising crop of Nigerian and African actors here and abroad – Danai Gurira and Adepero Oduye instantly come to mind.
Aside from casting and structure, the potential adaptation could definitely spur a much-needed dialogue between black Americans and African immigrants that considers some of the long-standing tensions between the groups, perhaps fostering diasporic understanding. A recipient of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award, Adichie is skilled in unpacking these tensions using nuance, humor, and irony that never appears heavy-handed or intentional. Of course, many of the elements outlined in this article are dependent on who directs the film. Let’s hope it’s someone who can understand the layered narrative, and honor it visually. Ifemelu and Lupita deserve that.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She’s written for The Los Angeles Times, Vice, and Bitch Media.