For decades, BAFTA-winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor has stunned on the stage and the big screen. With roles in films like 12 Years A Slave and Come Sunday, the Nigerian-English actor never seriously considered stepping on the other side of the camera. That quickly changed when he heard William Kamkwamba’s astounding story. Though he was just a boy in rural Malawi when famine struck his village in the early 2000s, William ingeniously built a windmill pump to bring water to the parched lands, saving his family’s life.
Invigorated by Kamkwamba’s autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Ejiofor would embark on a decade-long journey that would unleash Kamkwamba’s magnificent life onto the big screen and set the stage for his own directorial debut. Shadow and Act was present during a conversation at MACRO Lodge at Sundance Film Festival where Ejiofor sat down to chat with producer Adetoro Makinde about The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, his journey to bring it to the big screen, and why stories like these need a platform.
“The book came out in 2009,” Ejiofor recalled. “A friend of mine was at the launch party for the book and told me about it then. I read it, and I was transported by William Kamkwamba’s journey, his ingenuity, his attitude, his way of being, his thought process, his dynamism. There was this sense of humility and depth and intelligence and warmth and understanding of the wider geopolitical situation that was being described.”
The Academy Award nominee was immediately moved to present William’s story to an even bigger audience. “It was like I had been waiting for something like this all my life,” he reflected. “The first process was to think about how to adapt it. I wanted to get more people to embrace and understand William’s journey and what he did. Then it was bringing in people to start the development process as the producers of the film.”
More than just writing a script and throwing the narrative on screen, Ejiofor sought a true authenticity in his adaptation of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. He knew that to give the narrative the thoughtfulness that it deserved that he would need to travel to William’s native Mawali. “I went back and forth to Malawi, to try and see if I could get under the hood and just understand the place and its dynamics,” he said. “I met William and his family and got introduced to that community. I started to try and get an understanding of Malawi, the specifics of Malawi. I’ve spent some time in my life back and forth in Nigeria, and in rural communities in Nigeria, but there is no generic Africa. These are very specific places, with very specific histories. I was trying to understand the history, but also, learning about how I would visually tell the story. I had been accustomed to seeing stories about Africa and African countries as though they were small lives, somehow. And they’re not. They’re huge. This journey is massive, it’s incredible. It’s the difference between life and death.”
As he began to put the tapestry of the film together, many things changed for Ejiofor. In fact, he initially never meant to portray William’s father Trywrell. “When I started the film, I felt that I was just too young to play Trywell [who] has a young teenage son,” he laughed. “This is ten or so years ago but, it took ten years, so by the time I made the film suddenly I was right into the sweet spot. I was like, ‘Actually, I could probably could do Trywell.'”
Since The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on a true story —and the people of Mawali did go through a hunger crisis and drought in the early 2000s—it was essential the those working on the film also understood the weight of the narrative. “All of the people who are there are familiar with William’s story, familiar with the book, familiar with the history,” Ejiofor reflected. “And this just sort of changes the dynamic of everything that you’re doing. We’re not existing in a vacuum and trying to transport this in a non-authentic way. that was hugely important to me.”
To tell the story the way he felt it needed to be told, Ejiofor required a great deal for his actors. Namely—that they learn the Chichewa language. When it came to casting William, the Golden Globe nominee knew that Maxwell Simba was the right choice because of his sheer dedication to the role. “He was very studious about his Chichewa,” Ejiofor remembered. “I saw his audition tape when I was in London, and I was just totally floored. The choices that he was making in the scene were very good. There was these sort of excellent little details that he was throwing in.”
With The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind headed to Netflix and many other stories from the African content and the diaspora gaining distribution and festival runs, Ejiofor hopes to continue sparking real conversations about our stories, who gets to tell them, and why they are so important. “I’m hoping that this kind of film is a sort of bridge,” he explained, “It’s one step into trying to have a real, authentic conversation. I didn’t want to make a film that was in any way apologizing for anything or trying to sort of pander. I wanted to make sure that this is the real thing, and there’s nothing to be worried about. It is special. It’s okay to see these dynamics play out. Of course, there were problems, there were complications in William’s life —but that’s not the whole story.”
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind will premiere on Netflix in March 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide