A hair-braiding salon can be a fascinating place.
Between itchy scalps and painful braids, there are stories of migration, connection,
and division amongst its braiders and patrons. In her third novel, “Americanah,” renowned author Chimamanda
Ngozi Adichie brings this setting to life, using it as connective tissue for a
highly engrossing diasporic story of a young, self-assured Nigerian woman named
Ifemelu who emigrates to the United States from Nigeria to complete her college
education, only to discover what it means to be “black” in America, what it
means to be a black immigrant in America, and how these worlds collide and
merge in everyday life.
The African braid shop is one manifestation of that convergence-
a place where Senegalese and Malian women stand in sticky-hot heat, taking
requests from a number of different patrons- a giddy white girl, a young black
American woman whom they gossip about when she leaves, and an irritated
Ifemelu, all representing layers of racial commentary, and serving as platforms
for Ifemelu’s experiences in Nigeria and America as she prepares to return home
after years in the US. Through this shifting narrative, we meet memorable
characters: Ifemelu’s youthful Aunty Uju who bears a child for a corrupt Nigerian
general, a black American academic named Blaine whom Ifemelu meets on a fateful
train ride, a white, upper-crust love interest named Curt whom Ifemelu meets
while working as a nanny for a rich, white family, and most importantly, Obinze,
her first love and confidante, a highly inquisitive man who married the wrong
At its core, “Americanah” is an expansive love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, which also goes into careful
detail of his life as an undocumented immigrant in London as Ifemelu explores
her newfound American identity. Viewed as a place of opportunity and refuge
when they were kids, America becomes something very different to them as their
So, how would the novel translate to the screen? With the
news that Lupita Nyong’o will be adapting the novel, with David Oyelowo co-starring, one question is already off the table: Who would play Ifemelu? I
can’t think of an actress I’d want more in this role. Ifemelu inhabits a
brazen, unapologetic demeanor that is often absent from female characters in
film and literature. She is a feminist/activist for the digital age, calling
out things and people in her popular blog about race in America. This blog is
one of the many exciting areas of this novel, which both tracks the emergence
of blogging in pop culture, and serves as a sounding board for Ifemelu.
The length of the book is another consideration. At almost 500
pages, it has an epic quality that lends itself to cinema. The narrative is grand
and sweeping in a way that mirrors other powerful adaptations like “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Namesake.” As in the book, the film
would be held together nicely by the African braid shop, and could utilize repeated
flashbacks to orient the audience to Ifemelu and Obinze’s journeys in Nigeria,
America, and London. While voiceover is
a highly contested device, it could work wonders as the narrative shifts
between different worlds and perspectives. It would also be exciting to hear
the blogs spoken over some scenes. The book is almost written with these cinematic
considerations in mind, and there’s a certain narrative grounding that the braid
shop and other recurring locations offer. They are specific layers of the greater
discussion on race and culture that Adichie initiates in Ifemelu’s character,
and her relationship with Obinze.
But like all adaptations, some scenes and characters wouldn’t
make it into the final film and instead of spoiling the book for those who
haven’t read it, I’ll leave it to you to determine who would be left out. But
there are certain characters who’d definitely make the cut. Blaine, for
example, is a complex love interest who could come alive in the form of Michael
B. Jordan. Obinze is another textured black male character who could be played
by a newcomer or a more known actor like David Oyelowo (although it’s unknown what role he’s signed up to play) or Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Other characters, like Aunty Uju, her son Dike, and Ifemelu’s friend Ranyinudo
will provide ample opportunities for the rising crop of Nigerian and African
actors here and abroad – Danai Gurira and Adepero Oduye instantly come to mind.
Aside from casting and structure, the potential adaptation could definitely spur a much-needed dialogue between black Americans and
African immigrants that considers some of the long-standing tensions between the
groups, perhaps fostering diasporic understanding. A recipient of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award, Adichie is skilled in unpacking these tensions using nuance, humor, and irony that never appears heavy-handed or intentional. Of course, many of the elements outlined in this article are dependent on who directs the film. Let’s hope it’s someone who can understand the layered narrative, and honor it visually. Ifemelu and Lupita deserve that.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. She’s written for The Los Angeles Times, Vice, and Bitch Media.