After being discovered by Spielberg at the tender age of 19, it is hard to imagine that acting was never the direct vocational path for the London born Nigerian actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Despite accumulating numerous awards and acclamations, Chiwetel remains adamant that acting was not a conscious priority in his life, simply something that he fell into. Needless to say, that ‘something’ is the epitome of extraordinary talent, as within a career spanning only 18 years he has amassed a repertoire of more than 25 feature films, 2 notable British drama series, and has had his fair share of West End stage appearances. In light of Chiwetel’s recent fame surrounding 12 years a slave, critics and the public alike have been too hasty in their typecasting of him as ‘the one to watch.’ Far from this, Ejiofor has already single-handedly created a name for himself.
Breaking the traditional mould of Nigerian familial expectations (his mother was a pharmacist whilst his father was a doctor), Ejiofor began acting in school plays at only thirteen years old at South London public school, Dulwich College. He then went on to join the National Youth Theatre in 1995. A testament to his raw natural talent came soon after, as despite gaining a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art he chose like anyone would if Steven Spielberg asked, to play the part of James Covey in Amistad (1997).
His varying previous roles include his portrayal of Okwe in Dirty Pretty Things (2002), The Operative in Serenity (2005), Lola in Kinky Boots (2005), Luke in Children of Men (2006), Dr. Adrian Helmsley in 2012 (2009) and Ian Carter in Tsunami: The Aftermath (2008), all of which led to him receiving acclaim through either being nominated or winning awards such as the Golden Globe Award, British Independent Film Award and BAFTA Orange Rising Star Award. Not forgetting his astounding lead performances on stage such as in Shakespeare’s classics, (as Romeo in 2000 and then as the renowned Othello in 1995, 1996 and more recently in 2007) he has been branded as ‘one of the greatest actors of his generation’.
12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel’s recent emotive, sincere portrayal of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave (2013) has captured the hearts of a worldwide audience, leaving critics singing his praises and resulting in an Academy Award and Oscar nomination. The biographical film centres on Northup’s 1968 memoir, which records his brutal struggle as a kidnapped free black man turned slave. The merciless acts of violence endured by the slaves are horrific to watch, yet is an aspect that was all too common in Northup’s daily life. As Chiwetel adopts his new identity as Platt, a man void of freedom of any sort, there is a sense of hopelessness that inhabits his eyes. As Platt states, ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’, the plight of the slaves inner entrapment is shown. The harrowing physicality of violence is not what touches the heart. It is what the violence represents – a manifestation of the complete lack of control that the slaves’ have over their own bodies. Chiwetel’s large-eyed innocence seems perfect for illustrating both the injustice and confusion that Northup and his fellow slaves bore at their unspeakable mistreatment. Chiwetel fit the part of Northup perfectly, as director Steve McQueen stated himself: “Chiwetel Ejiofor was always going to be Solomon Northup for me. I was looking for someone that had that genteelness, that kind of humanity.’’
In terms of its British audience, 12 years a slave incites a long-awaited debate regarding Britain’s position in slavery and the notion of race. The mere fact that both the director and lead actor are of Black-British descent serves to remind us that slavery is not only an American preoccupation. Furthermore, there is a sense of irony in a film of such oppression being realized by two celebrated black men with an OBE and a CBE.
For Ejiofor it is evident that 12 years a slave affects him not only in terms of race and the depiction of the historical relationship between white and black, but also more intimately through his own Nigerian heritage. As he asserts, ‘There’s the personal, emotional journey of being a black man and talking about this story, talking about slavery. Also, there’s being a Nigerian: my heritage being Nigerian, and having that knowledge right from when I was first conscious.’
What can we expect from Chiwetel in the future?
In the coming year, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face will certainly not be missed from the big screen as he stars in Nigerian drama, Half a Yellow Sun (2013) alongside fellow Brit, Thandie Newton. Directed by Biyi Bandele and based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the well- received film will be released in the UK on the 11th April and then on the 25th April in Nigeria.
It tells the story of two Nigerian twins who were educated in England, and the dramatic change their lives faced in the late 1960 conflict of the Nigerian-Biafran war.
The struggle of the Igbo people in their quest of establishing Biafra as an independent republic it something that resonates profoundly with Chiwetel: ‘It was a deeply personal experience. Because not only are my parents Nigerian, but also Igbo and from the exact region then that all the events of the film take place… So the events [civil war-related] in the film happened to my own family. This part of our history is very defining.’
After having just completed writing and directing his second film Columbite Tantalite (2013), a short fusion of Congo’s longstanding and more recent struggles, Chiwetel is set to direct The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind a magnificent autobiographical story by William Kamkwamba, who as a boy built a windmill from scrap as the famine in Malawi unfolded around him.
Through his affiliations as an actor and director, it is clear that Chiwetel Ejiofor is a man inspired by a human perseverance that transcends the boundaries of race, age and gender. His strong social and political stance enforces his notion that film and media are great tools in educating a wider audience, whether that is on the African struggles in Congo, Nigeria and Mali or those on a more global scale.
The fascination with the humble Chiwetel will most-definitely continue, as Britain’s ‘first black film star’ carries on doing both Britain and Nigeria proud.