Chiwetel Ejiofor has proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with onscreen. With notable roles in films such as 12 Years a Slave, Doctor Strange, The Martian, Children of Men, and more, the actor has shown a wide range of emotion and versatility. In Netflix’s latest film, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Ejiofor not only stars in a leading role, but he’s tackling duties behind the camera as well, serving as both writer and director. It’s an impressive debut – The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is an emotional display of the power of human ingenuity and what people can accomplish in trying times, and it’s Ejiofor’s script that sets the film apart from other similar inspirational biopics.
Based on the memoir of the same name, the film follows the events of a famine that plagued an African village in the country of Malawi. William Kamkwamba (Maxwell Simba) is a young boy who has just begun school and shows a knack for being able to fix electrical devices. When a group of older boys are trying to listen to the radio but all of the batteries are dead, William is able to put together a new power source for it and earn the boys’ respect. As times get harder for Malawi and William’s family is no longer able to afford to send him to school, he seeks refuge in the library, where he’s able to continue learning through books. Famine strikes William’s village and the situation grows more and more dire, so the young, bright boy attempts to build a wind turbine that can bring power and water back to his home.
There have been many stories like William’s, and many of them are set in Africa as well, but Ejiofor takes his time with the film, getting to the heart of what exactly happened that brought such a terrible situation to Malawi and William’s village and thus making his triumph so much more cathartic and earned. Famine isn’t something that just happens. Ejiofor shows the events that led up to the crisis, mostly shown through the eyes of William’s father, Trywell (played by Ejiofor himself). Trywell is a farmer who constantly fights against the machinations of private businesses that are seeking Malawi’s resources. Early on, we see him protest the cutting down of their trees, which the villagers agree to sell off, arguing that without the trees the land will easily flood, which it inevitably does.
But not all of the blame can be pinned on the village itself; the government also refuses to assist as the crisis looms larger, in fact, they don’t even acknowledge that anything is going on at all. When a government representative arrives at the village to receive praise and admiration, the village chief takes the opportunity to call out them out and declare that they need someone in charge who can better represent them. He’s quickly taken off the stage and severely beaten, sending the message that this place and its people are very much alone, and will have to fend for themselves. Farming land dries up and crops are unable to grow, leading to many leaving home, fighting over what little food remains, and lashing out at each other.
By taking the time to show all of the factors that led up the disaster, as well as not shying away from just how devastating something like a severe lack of food can be, William’s victory feels so rightly earned that it’s almost impossible not to be overcome with emotion when it finally happens. The wind turbine isn’t able to be built until near the end of the film, allowing the story to be focused on the sense of community within Malawi and the constant conflict of ideas between William and his father. The wind turbine itself isn’t something that William creates all on his own either, its existence is thanks to the combined efforts of everyone in the village coming together to help save themselves.
So while William is certainly the hero of this true story, he is only able to accomplish what he did thanks to the support of his community, from his family, to his friends, to his teachers. The performances are top notch – of particular note is Aïssa Maïga as Agnes, William’s mother, who is a woman determined to steer her family into the modern age, not wanting (no matter how desperate the situation) to simply pray for rain as their ancestors did, but take charge of their own fates. All of this plus the fact that education is emphasized as the tool for salvation, is what sets The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind apart from these kind of familiar stories. It’s an inspiring and heartfelt journey of knowledge, cooperation, and love.
4 / 5 Stars
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is now streaming on Netflix.