No fripperies. No glamour. But the rustic life in the Malawian village, Wimbe, makes the perfect setting for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s drama, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”. This Netflix original is based on a book of the same title which is inspired by the the true story of co-writer William Kamkwamba.
“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is set in the year 2001. At a time in which drought led to famine. Director, Ejiofor, plays Trywell Kamkwamba a farmer. He’s also a family man who would starve so his family can have enough to eat. Although poor, Trywell is an upright man. His long time friend, Daniel, says that Trywell was nicknamed “The Pope” for his honesty. But adds, ‘what good can come from an honest businessman’? In the near future, Trywell’s son William (Maxwell Simba) would prove Daniel wrong.
At the beginning of the movie, Trywell is beaming with pride as his son and middle child, William, goes off to Kachokolo School. It’s Trywell’s greatest achievement yet. And that scene set the tone for many profound moments in “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”.
We also learn early on that William is an inquisitive teenager whose favourite pastime is trying to fix damaged radio sets and visiting a scrapyard after school. At school, he shows a great interest in science. But the joy of attending school soon fades when Trywell is unable to pay William’s school fees. So William drops out of school and joins his father in the farm. Yet there was more unhappiness to come. After Trywell’s nephew, Jeremiah makes a bad judgment call, floods destroy several crops leading to a bad harvest. Subsequently, a drought resulted in famine in the region. As youths fled Wimbe in search of greener pastures – including William’s sister Annie (Lily Banda), others died of hunger.
There’s only one way out. Water. William reads a science book in his school’s library which inspires him. So he uses materials gathered from the scrapyard and his father’s prized possession to build a windmill. His windmill without finesse irrigated the farmlands and saved an entire community.
Ejiofor serves as writer and director of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” and he should be extremely proud of his work. Although, born to Nigerian parents, Ejiofor has spent the better part of his life in Britain. So, it’s marvelous to see him tell a story so true of the motherland. Among the many messages in this film is the coexistence of Africans. Chief Wimbe (British actor Joseph Marcell, best known as Geoffrey Butler in the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”), has a son Gilbert. He is William’s close friend. And we see how they support each other despite different religious beliefs.
Ejiofor’s screenplay is also truly admirable. When Trywell talks about how he had to stretch his hand over his head to touch his left ear as a criteria to attend school, it was also an all-too-familiar story. The storytelling is also enriched by the familiar nuances of the masquerades. For further authenticity, the film’s dialogue is largely in Chichewa, a predominant language in Malawi. Ejiofor learnt to speak the language for this film. Remarkable!
By the same token, make-up, costume design and props check the boxes. In a close-up shot, you see the worn-out collar of Trywell’s shirt. And how relatable is the school bell?
To top it off, the entire cast put up really strong performances. It’s a good mix of African and British actors. The cast complement each and have good on-screen chemistry. Ejiofor and Maxwell show a wide range of emotions – anger, disappointment, sadness and joy. Ejiofor also fully embodied an African father. But we see the best of Ejiofor when William’s windmill starts to water the farm. That scene could move you to tears. Let’s also not forget Agnes (Aïssa Maïga). A good African woman who recognises the role of her husband. She valued education perhaps more than her husband and exerted her influence on Trywell until he supported his son.
Ejiofor chose a laudable project for his feature directorial debut. And William Kamkwamba is an unsung hero. An African who built something out of nothing. “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is one of many untold stories from the so-called dark continent which deserves to be told. And we are glad Ejiofor told it. It’s a win for all Africans because this great inspirational story shows the ingenuity and survival instincts of ordinary Africans.
“The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is streaming on Netflix. It will take you on an emotional roller coaster but you’ll love it.
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Joseph Maxwell, Aïssa Maïga, Joseph Marcell, Noma Dumezweni, Lemogang Tsipa, Lily Banda, Kelvin Maxwell Ngoma, Beatus Ble Msamange