Netflix has picked up The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and I’m calling it: it’s going to the Oscars next year.
I’m a sucker for movies that talk about countries often hidden from mainstream film or television. Add to that a cast of color and a story that is very clearly told by a person who knows what they’re talking about, and this is the #ownvoices film we’ve been waiting for.
We were all captivated by Alfonso Cuaron and Netflix’s amazing Roma, which told the story of an indigenous Mexican woman — the sort of character we’ve never really seen step into the light in Hollywood. And Netflix continues its trend of empowering diverse voices by picking up The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind, a movie set in Malawi. It’s directed, written and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave, Doctor Strange), and is based on a true story.
The movie is set in the early 2000s and follows a small community of farmers in Malawi. William, the young teenage son of an ambitious farmer who has always encouraged his children to get an education, is finally in a school where he can pursue his innovative goals — but a series of unpredictable natural events lead to widespread famine, putting him and his community on the edge of starvation.
While the title of the film is a dead giveaway for the solution William eventually builds to save the day, the movie is absolutely worth watching, because it’s spectacularly good. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a movie set in Africa that does such a good job of portraying characters as real people with agency, while also unapologetically portraying history and culture in a way that is both fascinating and absolutely relatable.
Of course, I’m not from Malawi, so I’m sure I’ve missed a lot as a result… but this film is a far cry from past movies I’ve seen set in Africa: movies where white people are somehow always at the forefront, culture is either exclusively depicted as negative or unnecessarily exoticized, and African characters seem helpless in the face of suffering, with no agency of their own.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind completely avoids these harmful depictions, because it’s based on the real William Kamkwamba’s memoir, and was clearly made by people who believe in depicting William’s community as it really was.
One of the best parts of the movie is that it’s half in English and half in Chichewa — William’s mother tongue — with subtitles. It wonderfully normalizes cultures where more than one language is spoken (and it’s important to note that around the globe, it’s more common to speak two or more languages than it is to only speak one). It also gives an African language the stage, much like Black Panther did with Xhosa, and finally gives it the same legitimacy Hollywood has always given European languages.
This story is not about an outsider saving the problems of a starving community. It’s the story of a young local who finds a way to end the hunger that is afflicting his friends and family, not because he has a huge amount of resources, or outside help (although those in his community certainly lend a hand here and there, proving once again that “it takes a village”) — but because he’s clever and creative, and has a will to help.
Stories about historically undermined communities are almost never given the spotlight in this way. They are routinely depicted as being poor, sad and ignorant, while in reality they have just as many innovators, visionaries and heroes as any other community. William was just one of the many clever youth who have stepped up to empower those around them in places that hardly ever make international news.
And The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind never seeks to exoticize William’s life, or make his home seem sad. While in the midst of the story’s crisis, there is certainly reason to pity his situation, at the start of the film the Kamkwamba family is doing quite well. They have land, they have tight-knit ties to the people around them, they’re funny and loving with each other, and they have ambitious goals in education and work.
It’s true that to many, the look of their home, their clothes, and their few resources might seem poor and sad — but in the context of William’s life, where happiness and love abound, there is no reason to pity him. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind steers away from Western standards of what a “normal” family life looks like, and unlike many Western-made films about people of color in other countries (see Slumdog Millionaire or similar movies), it doesn’t make their lack of resources into a spectacle. You just become immersed in the family’s reality, which is vastly successful in many other ways.
That’s not to say that the film shies away from showing the real suffering that comes with widespread famine. There are plenty of heart-wrenching scenes in this movie, and intense social commentary about politics, class, gender and greed. But as it’s portrayed through the eyes of the local characters, the story feels both authentic and respectful.
All of this, combined with Ejiofor and Aïssa Maïga’s powerful performances as William’s parents, and Maxwell Simba’s soulful William who will instantly capture your heart, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is an amazing movie for the whole family.
And it goes to show how many amazing stories are just waiting to be told, but maybe haven’t been picked up because they aren’t centered on the types of characters the media normally likes to portray.
What Ejiofor has created here, and Netflix has distributed, is a masterpiece that demands to be watched.