Netflix’s “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind” Captures The Pain and Joyfulness of Native Heroism
The newly acquired chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment, that comprises of the tagging of HBO with TNT, TBS, and truTV, boldly took a stand against Netflix, by mocking the winning mechanics of the rival streaming giant, with the statement that reeks of palatable envy:
“Netflix doesn’t have a brand. It’s just a place you go to get anything — it’s like Encyclopedia Britannica.” “That’s a great business model when you’re trying to reach as many people on the planet as you can.”
Yes, it’s true that there are nights when the endless choices are so overwhelming that a growing sense of frustration paralyzes my taste buds.
And the “business model” of offering a healthily diverse platter may sound like the plan with zero tangibility to a powerful media mogul, who doesn’t appreciate that level of commitment to an evolving industry and globe — but to the population that has been yearning for seamless accessibility to the narratives that hit close to home — Netflix is a fucking god.
In the early stages of introduction, it was a reassuringly delightful surprise to discover the library of films from Africa, specifically my homeland of Nigeria. And things only got better when critical darling, Lionheart, directed by the popular and very talented Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji, who also stars, made it’s long-awaited debut back in January. This confirmed the pledge by Netflix to make a substantial investment in original fare, courtesy of Nollywood.
In the meantime there is an amazing array of titles that showcase the beauty and brutality that dwells in the parts of the world, that are just now beginning to receive the attention and respect that never should’ve taken this long to amass.
That’s why the latest gem, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, that is currently streaming on Netflix, is especially special in its delivery, under the tutelage of a more than capable helmer, British-Nigerian and Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who also stars.
The gorgeously shot film is set in Malawi, the forgotten African country that is eclipsed by the tourist attraction and historical relevancy of neighboring territories, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The inspirational aspect of the story is endorsed by the fact that it’s based on real life events, and the book by Malawian author and inventor William Kamkwamba, dutifully captures the humble beginnings of his exploratory phase as a village boy, and how it resulted in his very first life-altering innovation.
The journey begins in 2001, and the setting is the embattled village of Wimbe, where 13-year-old William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) resides with his older sister, Annie (Lily Banda), and parents Trywell, (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Agnes (Aissa Maiga).
William is a gifted and attentive student at school, but the all too common financial challenges that overwhelm his family of farmers prevent him from continuing his education, until his parents can come up with the school fees.
But this setback doesn’t dampen the spirits of a thriving teenager who makes himself useful through his superior capabilities of being the roving repairman, who can patch up a radio for his eager friends, so they can keep track of game scores. And instead of staying idle, William prefers sifting though spare parts of machines to devise whole units that are workable.
Before long, the effects of the unrelenting drought season take hold, causing a famine that reduces the village to rubble. Desperate farmers resort to disrupting the system by rioting against a failed government, that has essentially abandoned the duty to provide any form of assistance or long-term solution.
The Kamkwamba household is faring just as badly as other destabilized families. They suffer the worst after thieves storm their premises and overpower William’s mother and sister, who defenselessly watch the bandits escape with the stored food they had been painstakingly rationing.
Tensions reach an all-time high, when William and his father Trywell suffer the consequences of miscommunication, stemming from the clash between science and manual labor; as the farmer demands his son to exit the fantastical realm, and join him in the fruitless task of ploughing the tragically dry land.
What transpires during and after William’s plea to his father to grant him permission for his invention on the horizon, is the utter pain and joyfulness of native heroism.
It’s birthed from stark desolation by the cursed deities, and the shock effect of brutalization at the hands of nefarious officials of government, that are notoriously shrewd with barrels of greed to boot.
The story ends on a gratifyingly promising note, as we get to witness the miraculous turnaround, that’s spawned from a windmill, that couldn’t have happened without the brilliant mind of a schoolboy, whose prolific gift takes centerstage in ways that gloriously seal his burgeoning trajectory.
The major takeaways from The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind begins with the stellar performances from the main cast, as we witness the struggles and triumphs of a close-knit family, that plays out with remarkable authenticity, thanks to the unique chemistry that binds.
Ejiofor and Simba are truly able to display the relatable complexities that drive the relationship between father and son. And Maiga shines as the loving and supportive wife and mother who is fierce in her role as the quietly formidable matriarch with the voice of wisdom.
It’s also worth nothing that Aissa Maiga is the Senegalese-born French actress who commandeered the red carpet during the 2018 Cannes Film Festival with the aid of a group of 16 Black actresses, to call out the appalling and persistent practice of the French film industry when it comes to the non-visibility of Black actresses.
Maiga and her warriors were attending the illustrious event to promote the book Maiga co-authored, “Noire N’est Pas Mon Métier” (My Profession is Not Black), which showcases the testimonies of Black creatives, speaking out about the systemized prejudices that have stalled their careers.
And this is precisely why the method of engagement that Netflix has employed with the investments in African tales, depicting the human experience, that are translatable across oceans and time zones, is a revelation that deserves to be applauded and emphatically championed.
When it comes to the beaten-to-death subject of diversity, studio systems with White executives at the seat of power, are only flexible to the nudge, if the narratives fit the palettes of Whiteness, as evidenced with this year’s Oscar-winner for best picture, Green Book.
We need Black storytellers to have the freedom and protection necessary to execute without restrictions or the threat of systemized coercion that ends with a cripplingly diluted product.
2015’s Beast of No Nation, that starred British-Ghanaian actor Idris Elba, was the first notable entry of its kind, and almost 4 years later, the expansion is underway, and if The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind and Lionheart are prime indicators of what’s to come, then the future is blindingly bright!