By Ilodigwe C. Kenneth
"For he was a shrub among the poplars" — Christopher Okigbo
Like many Nigerian cineastes, I first discovered Biyi Bandele in 2013, the year in which the film adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun, Biyi’s directorial debut, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The movie would, upon its release the year after, garner a hulking fan base and clinch the blistering record of Nollywood’s highest-grossing movie until the emergence of The Wedding Party in December 2016.
A fortuitous YouTube video captioned Half of a Yellow Sun Premiere—Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie & Onyeka Onwenu had set me up for a prostrate fall for the man and his works. Although it was the name of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my favourite bluestockings and the author of the eponymous novel that made me click the video. As they say, it is a story that gives rise to another story, hence the tremendous success story that trailed Half of a Yellow Sun (the movie), especially the ones I’d heard in swathes of enthralled commentaries, drove me hungry with the quest to discover the man behind it all.
We often nod in mindless agreement to the notion that some men are born great while others achieve greatness through sheer determination. But hardly can we demonstrate—if you think about it—any tangible difference between the childish inclinations of those “born great” and those violent achievers who take on greatness by force. Who would have thought that a shy, introverted, conventional middle-class bookworm who found true solace only in the library of a Catholic school would grow to become a formidable force in both the literary and filmmaking world?
When, in 1987, Biyi left Kafanchan, the place of his birth and coming-of-age, it was to get a degree in drama at the prestigious Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife. He would from there migrate to the UK in 1990 in search of the golden fleece for his career, armed with the manuscript of his debut novel: The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond.
In an interview with Charles Aniagolu of Arise News on the 19th of November, 2021, Biyi disclosed that on arriving in the UK, he’d chanced upon a book in a bookshelf containing a long list of potential publishers: a good number of whom he sent photocopies of his first novel’s manuscript. Within two months, he said, he’d attracted publishers in the UK, Germany, Italy, and Spain. This fortune, overwhelming as it was flattering, would become the overture to the many accomplishments for which Biyi is remembered today, which include the title of one of the UK’s most prolific black writers.
Shortly after his first novel was published in the UK, Biyi recounted in that interview, the artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre of London, having read his just-published novel, contacted him to write a play for them on the premise that his work reflected a deep dramatical experience. This commission marked another, if rather the most significant, turning point for Biyi. It was, first of all, an enviable feat to be in the Royal Court Theater’s crew (the same theater that had helped hone Wole Soyinka’s theatrical career in the late ’50s). But most importantly, the opportunity afforded him a rich and broad industrial training of sorts, for it was there that he learned to make movie adaptations and to direct actors. In his own words, he was in for a second degree in Drama, only a more practical one this time.
During the silent years of Biyi’s life and career (although there’s nothing silent about them), he wrote plays, novels, and poems. He would later break into the domains of journalism, television, film, and radio. Among his most popular novels are: The Man Who Came in From the Back of Beyond (1991), The Street (1999), Burma Boy (2007), and Yoruba Boy Running, which he was working on until the time of his demise.
His plays include: Rain (I989), Marching for Fausa (1993), Resurrections in the Season of the Longest Drought (1994), Two Horsemen (1994), Death Catches the Hunter, published in the same volume as Me and the Boys in 1995. His stage adaptation of his own novel, The Street (1999), premiered in 2001 and appeared in the same volume as his play, Happy Birthday Mr. Deja, which premiered in 1999.
Speaking of Biyi’s writings, both his novels and plays, it’d be a grave omission to merely list them without talking about the events or the stories that gave rise to them. Biyi, given the era in which he was born, was much enamoured of war and life stories told by his father and his folks. These stories shaped and ordered Biyi’s worldviews and perspectives on events happening around him. They probably informed his great love for books as a child, one that saw him through to adulthood, permeating every aspect of his life, including his career choices. There’s an undeniable touch of sensitivity and profundity throughout Biyi’s works, which doubtless reflects the quality of his mind. Books alone, and keen observation of the issues of life, and the vicissitudes of day-to-day life as they unfold, can account for such depth of insight and knowledge. Biyi was also known for often withdrawing from the outside world and into himself. He seemed to have this world in his mind into which he constantly escaped, and rightly so, because he was both a writer and a man.
Biyi had an eye for great art. He had an uncanny ability to spot artistic gold materials, and he never failed to parlay his talents into refining them. He was also a patient groomer: one who often retreated to vantage points in order to study the angles and curbs of his works. I’m torn between his appearance—the dreadlocks he rocked with seasonal relief, his placid face festooned with thin, bespectacled eyes, his hearty smile, and his noticeably outstanding skill—but Biyi had an irresistible personality that charmed everyone who came around him. No wonder he was friends and close acquaintances with big names like Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Mo Abudu, CEO of Ebonylife Group. It was Biyi’s inbred knack for creating and recreating elite projects that spurred him into doing a dramatization of Things Fall Apart in 1997, and an adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Lorca’s Yerma in 2001. These first and lofty attempts at the transformation of art from one form to another would set the stage for the works that would become known as his greatest stage shows in the cinema world: Half of a Yellow Sun (his prelude) and Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman (his epilogue).
Unimpressed with the sloppy directing of his screenplays by some film directors, Biyi began directing his screenplays and was great at it. Having been critically acclaimed for directing some of his screenplays, he acknowledged that a director ought to have an even greater imagination large enough to contain the written work and to recreate it with satisfactory precision, adapting both the physical aspects of the work and its non-physical dynamics with such coherence that blurs the margins. In one interview, Biyi disclosed that he’d often had to look with disillusionment or self-pity at the end product of scripts he’d written or adapted, at how completely distorted or neutered they turned out. He would often brood and complain, he said, until a friend told him one day: “If you have a problem with the way your works are directed, then direct them.” And that was it. Biyi had always known this to be the solution to his problem, but he needed validation from someone else. He went on from there to strut our screens with magic.
On a certain dark day, a post on Biyi’s Facebook account made by Temi Bandele, Biyi’s daughter, announced the sudden and unexpected death of the star. Mo Abudu thought as much: “sudden and unexpected”, as if death, especially when it eyed men like Biyi, gives a warning before striking. For Biyi’s closest family, and perhaps for all of us, “sudden and unexpected” loomed colossal on the gravels of expectancy (“What shall this man do?”). For Mo Abudu and the highly talented cast and crew of Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman, “sudden and unexpected” meant a captain not returning to plunder the spoils of war with an army he’d just led to victory. Biyi died somewhere near the peak of his career, but we can all agree that he rested on his laurels. The cause of his death remains unknown, although a few close friends of his have disclosed, in confidence, that in the course of his itinerary bustles, he did speak of going to see his doctor in London for his medication and getting right back to work. At 54, Biyi wasn’t thinking of retiring, but of reiterating his commitment to excellence through sterling filmmaking.
For how to remember Biyi Bandele, Mo Abudu recommends that he be remembered through the gift of his works, and indeed, Biyi left us scores of priceless gifts: Half of a Yellow Sun, Shuga, Fifty, Blood Sisters, Elesin Oba, and others. He lives through them all. Although we would have loved to have him in person. He lives on through every page in the books he left us, through every play we dare to relive, and through every one of his onscreen signatures.
There’s no forgetting the giant, still-faced, bespectacled man in changing dreadlocks. There’s no moving on from the memory of him. There’s no getting over the enchanting wonders of his masterpieces, which are many. There’s no undoing the firm grip of Biyi’s personal and professional influence in the world. There’s no replacing Biyi Bandele! As we go on living, writing, performing, acting, and directing without the Polaris of Biyi’s presence, let us often remember to stand fast and salute that noble wonder who cast our stories in the image of our dream. Biyi loved art and gave himself to it.