Cover Stories

Chiwetel Ejiofor is here to save Hollywood

Actor. Director. Londoner. Could a boy from Forest Gate become the man to smash the film industry's status quo?

It’s 8.30am on a grey South-London morning, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s taxi has just pulled up outside a square and slightly scuffed Sixties pub off Brixton Hill. As he walks the approximately 75 metres from his car to the location, down a car-lined residential street and across a small yet surprisingly undulating park, he’s stopped by almost every person he sees – each armed with an iPhone and a smile. This includes the man who’s keeping an eye on the park gate to make sure no one accidentally wanders onto set (and into shot). ‘He’s my hero,’ he says as the actor walks away. ‘I know he’s working, but I had to get a selfie.’

I’m meeting Ejiofor at the Brixton Windmill, to my mind one of the London’s true hidden gems. I mean this quite literally as, despite being on the crest of Brixton Hill, it’s now invisible from the main road, hidden by waves of urban development: rows of Victorian terraces built during the area’s suburban boom, boxy post-war estates, and a march of unrelenting Millennial apartment blocks. Built in 1816 as a part of Ashby’s Mill, it’s the sole survivor of 11 windmills that used to make copious quantities of flour for the population of Lambeth and beyond. Perched on top of the highest point in the park, its black bricks and white sails stand as a stark – and, now, frankly bonkers – contrast to the encroaching, ever-changing modern world around it.

‘I really like the sense of energy and dynamism in London. I feel like it’s right there. You can sense the frustration with the status quo right now,’ he says. ‘This city is one of those places that changes dramatically – it’s constantly evolving and that’s what’s exciting about it.’

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Having contorted our way up two sets of creaky ladders, we’re settling down on the second floor in between the large metal cogs and hulking grindstones that form the beating heart of the building. They might be laying dormant right now, but this is still a working mill. It might now be jostling for space in a concrete jungle as opposed to enjoying the wide open spaces of its more pastoral past, but it’s bricks-and-mortar proof that evolution and adaptation is the key to thriving as time moves on.

In many ways, you could apply this logic to Ejiofor’s career. Born in Forest Gate, Ejiofor began acting during his time at Dulwich College before joining the National Youth Theatre. An accomplished and decorated stage actor, it is arguably his move towards more film work that has given him the kind of widespread appeal that results in multiple morning selfie requests. Following a bit-part debut in Spielberg’s Amistad in 1997 and his Golden Globe-nominated turn as drag queen Lola in the movie adaptation of the play Kinky Boots in 2005, his status as one of Britain’s most important leading men was cemented by his commanding performance in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in 2014, a role that led him to become the first black British man in history to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Now he’s embarking on his latest project, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, the first in which he’s an actor, as well as screenwriter and director. He’s evolving into a triple threat.

The movie, which comes to Netflix this March, is an adaptation of a memoir by the same name by William Kamkwamba. Set in Malawi in 2001, the extraordinary story follows the Kamkwamba family – headed by parents Trywell (Ejiofor) and Agnes (played by Aïssa Maïga) – as famine grips the country. As the family’s crops fail and money becomes so scarce that at one point Trywell starves himself so his children won’t go without food, the 13-year-old William (played by newcomer Maxwell Simba) is forced to drop out of school. In an effort to help his family and neighbours, William teaches himself electrical engineering using books in his school library and manages to construct a wind turbine that powers his community.

‘I do believe in such a thing as a social contract. We have a responsibility to belong to society in a positive way’

The windmill we’re inside right now might have been constructed at a different time, in a different country and for a different purpose than the one William builds in the film, but immediately my thoughts turn to the protagonist – and how his story might resonate with people who have very different life experiences.

‘In recent times, there has been an emphasis on individualism in society,’ says Ejiofor. ‘While that’s a part of William’s story, I liked that his was also a story about how a community that works together allows the individual to achieve their potential. That’s what was powerful to me.

‘I was aware of William’s story, but I was intrigued in how he came to be. Not just what he was – as a kid in this highly stressful situation – but who he was and who his family was, what his community was like, what his village of Wimbe was like, and how this individual was able to find this strength to not be crushed by a sense of one’s own insignificance against nature, poverty, all these things.’

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Ejiofor speaks with the kind of intensity of a man who is used to communicating with an audience from behind a proscenium arch. He’s not loud, but speaks clearly and directly to you. He pauses in thought before he answers a question. He rarely utters an ‘um’ or an ‘er’. His sentences are long, but not rambling. He maintains eye contact throughout. The way he talks leaves you in no doubt that he’s committed to what he’s saying – and that he’s passionate about telling this story in a genuine way.

‘I first started writing the screenplay about eight or nine years ago,’ he says. ‘Because of this I was able to go back and forth to Malawi, spend time with William and his family and really get a sense of the place. Eventually I knew Wimbe very well, so when I was writing I could write with the locations in mind.’

Surely being the screenwriter and director on the project as well as acting in it is an enormous amount of pressure?

‘It’s pretty intense,’ he laughs, ‘but one thing falls into another. When I first started writing I felt I was too young to play Trywell, it was just that it took so long that at a certain point it just made sense!’

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While Ejiofor might be playing the father role in this adaptation, I ask what it is that resonated with him about William’s story, and what he feels people who haven’t been through the same experiences can take away from the film.

‘One of the things that attracted me to the story was that I felt he has a certain spirit, an understanding that in order to break out of what’s hemming you in, you have to utilise whatever is available to you. You have to be tenacious and not give up,’ Ejiofor says. ‘That’s what William harnessed.’

If the film isn’t enough proof of the utmost respect the actor has for his source material’s life work, the way he talks about him convinces you.

‘To go from this entirely destitute village in Malawi and to end up studying at Dartmouth University purely on his own energy as a 13-year-old boy, I found that very inspiring. But I also think people will relate because things are tough out there and things are complex. I do believe in such a thing as a social contract, and that we have a responsibility to belong to society in a positive way. As we move into another generation of individualist thinking, I feel that’s being stripped away further.’

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And while on different sides of the world, can he draw any parallels between William growing up in Wimbe and his own experiences as a 13-year-old boy growing up in Forest Gate, just beginning on the career path that would lead him here to this moment? He thinks.

‘Around 1990 or so, I remember discussing with people the first Iraq War. I remember it being the first time I really became aware of international politics and a sense of the wider world – and that the older people involved didn’t really know what to do. I realised things can become destabilised and older people aren’t always in control. And that’s William’s story, too. The world itself is an imperfect creation.’

Watching The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind at a time where it feels the world is going through immense political change on both sides of the Atlantic feels powerful and comforting. It’s a film that believes, at its heart, that people are forces for social advancement through individual achievement – and that message starts at a grassroots level with a young person. It’s a reminder for people of any age that all voices are valuable.

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Of course, the subject of which voices are heard has dominated discussions about Hollywood in a very real way since the #oscarssowhite social media explosion during the 2015 and 2016 Academy Awards cycles. While the increased awareness about racial bias in the mainstream film industry has lead to more stories about the experiences of non-white people making it onto the awards circuit over the past three years, it’s hard to forget that Chiwetel is one of only a handful of black men to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar – and only four have ever won: Sidney Poitier in 1963, Denzel Washington in 2001, Jamie Foxx in 2004, and Forest Whitaker in 2006. And as Ejiofor adds screenwriting and directing to his resumé, it’s worth noting that when it comes to behind-the-camera roles, even less black talent has been recognised since the Academy Awards’ inception back in 1929; only 16 nominations (with five wins) for black men and women across two screenwriting categories, and six black men (and as yet zero black women) nominated for directing. Steve McQueen was the first black British man nominated for Best Director for 12 Years A Slave in 2014, and while he didn’t win his category, he would become the first black producer in history to win Best Picture.

‘A lack of diversity is to dismiss people’s voices for no good reason. It’s unfair to everybody’

However, despite hugely significant achievements such as this, it’s clear there is still an overwhelmingly white (and male) presence behind Hollywood’s cameras. I ask how Ejiofor feels about this and the resulting stories that continue to be told in mainstream movies. He tells me that at the beginning of the process of making this film, he spoke to a cinematographer friend of his who recommended he watch Harvest 3,000 Years, a film released in 1977 by Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima. While shown at Cannes Film Festival, it failed to receive widespread recognition.

‘It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen and had such an incredible influence on me making this,’ says Ejiofor. ‘It really struck me, the amount of talent that is lost in a system that doesn’t celebrate everyone, that promotes some voices over others, sometimes because of the ease of financial familiarity that they think they can access, sometimes out of racism, sometimes out of being distracted or simplifying too much. We lose that creative energy, sometimes forever.

‘A lack of diversity is to dismiss people’s voices for no good reason,’ he adds. ‘It’s unfair to everybody. By not hearing these voices or being denied the experience of looking at the world differently, they are then conditioned to look at the world in a certain way that only reflects their own point of view, but equally informs their point of view to become homogeneous. This makes the world a more stagnant place and makes all people more limited. Giving people access to different voices is a very powerful way of us working together and understanding the deeper complexities of the world.’

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And society does feel complex right now, with an endless stream of opinions all amplified by social media and a rolling news cycle. We need those voices to help unpack the world around us, we need those tales to find empathy. Up until now, those in the mainstream movie business who have had the capacity to tell these stories and showcase those voices have failed to do so in a truly meaningful way.

As we clamber our way backwards down the ladders and walk away from the windmill into the encroaching hodgepodge of history now encircling it, I can’t help but feel that this evolution of Ejiofor, reinvented as a new type of triple threat on both sides of the camera, is just what Hollywood – and the world – needs.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind comes to Netflix on 1 March.

This interview originally appeared in the February/March 2019 issue of The Jackal

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