SIFF 2014: An Evening with Chiwetel Ejiofor–Monday, May 19

Usually at SIFF, there are two tribute events.  One of them tends to sell rather quickly; the other one not so fast.  I was hoping that, since the Laura Dern Tribute sold quickly, the Chiwetel Ejiofor Tribute would not, and staff would be invited to the latter event.  This is what happened, and so, with my Eventbrite ticket in hand, I headed to the Egyptian Theatre after work, to see an actor I had first noticed in Dirty Pretty Things.I was so early for the event that I was only the third person in line.  I also had time to call my Mom, eat a 6-inch sub, and take two photos.

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The press wait for Ejiofor to arrive on the red carpet

Now, one thing that concerned me is that Eventbrite tickets, unlike purchased tickets, cannot be scanned by SIFF’s scanners.  Instead, an event barcode must be scanned for each ticket collected.  I know the box office staff knew about this, but I’m not sure if anyone told the volunteers, for it when it was time to enter the theater, one of them kept trying to scan my ticket, then told me that she had heard it scan and I was all set.  Somehow, I doubt it very much, which makes me wonder whether any of the Eventbrite tickets were collected, or if all the volunteers tried to scan them.  In any case, I got to keep my ticket.

At the Egyptian, I ran into several people I knew, both before and after the tribute.  It’s almost impossible not to.  One of my friends met me there, where I had saved her a seat on the aisle three rows from the front of the auditorium.

Carl Spence did the customary opening remarks, which included the following interesting biographical details:

  • Ejiofor spent one year with the National Youth Theatre before being cast in Amistad as Ensign Covey, who translates for Cinque (Djimon Hounsou).
  • Next was Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things, followed by the movie Kinky Boots, which inspired the musical of the same name.
  • Ejiofor was made an O.B.E. by Queen Elizabeth II.
  • He has received 15 best actor awards, including a BAFTA for 12 Years a Slave.

We then saw clips from his films, and then Spence introduced Ejiofor, who took to the stage to receive his Golden Space Needle Award.  He introduced his short film, “Columbite Tantalite,” which is an ore used in cell phones and other electronic devices.  He came up with the idea for the film while doing research for a play called “A Season in the Congo,” in which he played Patrice Lumumba.  The mineral is mined in the Congo and is often the source of conflict.  He also said that this was the first time he would see this film with people he doesn’t know, and then joked that everyone who has seen it has liked it.  He also introduced Half of a Yellow Sun, which he stars in, and deals with the bloody history of Nigeria after it gained independence from England.

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Ejiofor speaks after receiving his Golden Space Needle Award for Outstanding Achievement in Acting

Of the two, I preferred “Columbite Tantalite,” which is about a rebel leader who kills his men over their discovery of the ore, and then uses the possibilities of a virtual reality game to atone for it.  I had several issues with Half of a Yellow Sun.  First, the colors looked washed out, which can happen if one shoots in bright light or with low-quality digital.  It gives the picture a harshness it doesn’t need.  Worse, though, was the fractured nature of the film.  The book is an epic, yet I never felt the epic sweep of history while watching the movie.  The acting ranged from good to great, but the characters were never developed to a point where I cared about their fates.  Major events were highlighted, but there wasn’t enough occurring in between.

I thought there was going to be a short break after the film, but once the credits ended (and the chairs on the floor were hoisted onstage), Spence introduced the moderator: John Horn of the L.A. Times.  He then reintroduced Ejiofor, who joined Horn onstage.  During the Q & A, the first interesting tidbit the audience learned was that the film is actually banned in Nigeria.  Ejiofor said that is because the country is sensitive around the issue of the kidnapped girls and so feels the film is a criticism of the country.  We also learned that Ejiofor’s family is from Nigeria, and his parents fled to England during the Nigerian Civil War (which is why Ejiofor was born there).  His grandfather, who died in 2010, was about the same age as the character that Ejiofor plays in the film when the war occurred.  He told Ejiofor what the war did to Nigeria and his family (Ejiofor lost an uncle), and what it meant to him (the grandfather) and the West in a 10-hour discussion that started off with Ejiofor asking about his father, who died when he was eleven.  His father was a doctor and musician, and his mother and his father were backup singers.  When Horn joked, “Were they twenty feet from stardom?” Ejiofor answered, “More like sixty feet.”

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Chiwetel Ejiofor with moderator John Horn

Ejiofor, too, started out as a musician, but he had no musical talent, and when he got interested in acting, he found it not as exposing as music, since you have the character as a filter.  His interest in acting occurred while hearing one of the soliloquies from Henry IV, Part I.  Afterwards, he went down to the theater and asked what it is that actors do.  He still loves doing theater work because it makes people better.  He feels sorry for actors who don’t do plays, as they’re “missing that joy.”

Other interesting tidbits included the fact that he had to take a moment before deciding whether or not to do 12 Years a Slave.  Uncharacteristically for him, the role intimidated him, but then he went back and read Solomon Northup’s book and was touched by the fact that Northup could be so in the moment that he said he wouldn’t mind slavery existing if only he didn’t have to be in the hot sun picking cotton all day (written more poetically, of course).  Asked if he looks for any themes or trends in his work, Ejiofor said that he doesn’t really have a plan, then quoted Ice Cube as saying, “I’m not one of those actors who’s trying to do a lot of shit,” to which he responded, “I guess I’m an actor who does.”  Finally, he does try to look for connective tissue, something he feels people aren’t educated about.  For example, Half of a Yellow Sun was shot before 12 Years a Slave.  On his last day in Nigeria, he went to the slave museum in Calabar before heading to New Orleans to shoot 12 Years a Slave.  In both Nigeria and New Orleans, he ate okra and plantains.

Finally, he said he used to think he was at the beginning of his career; now it feels like the end of the beginning.  When asked if he would like to do more directing, he responded that it was more about feeling compelled to do stuff, as he was for his short film.  Uncharacteristically for a Q & A, highlights from his filmography weren’t shown throughout, and the session ended without any questions from the audience.  Some people were okay with that, and while I agree that the quality of questions from the audience can be suspect, one wonders if it was cut due to time constraints, even though Horn kept the Q & A moving, and it lasted less than an hour.

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