Chiwetel Umeadi Ejiofor was born in London, England on 10 July, 1977. His father was a doctor, but also a musician, “so we had that creative element in the family.” He is the child of Nigerian immigrants, refugees who moved to London to escape civil war in the 1960s. He was born in Forest Gate in the east and now lives in Islington in the north. He has a brother who works in fashion and two sisters, in medicine and journalism. He was privately educated at Dulwich College, the south London public school with a long theatrical tradition.
His parents Arinze and Obiajulu arrived in London the 60s, fleeing the Biafran war as students to settle in east London before heading to Camberwell. His mother qualified as a pharmacist, his father worked as a doctor while indulging his love of music by performing as a singer.
At the age of 11, while on holiday in Nigeria with his father, their taxi was involved in a crash. There was a car accident on a motorway in Lagos while the family were on holiday. Chiwetel, a passenger in the vehicle, was thrown clear, suffering serious head injuries and broken wrists. His mother, in England and pregnant at the time, was only told about the death of her husband once she’d flown out to be at the hospital.His father was killed. Ejiofor was left in hospital for ten weeks, his forehead permanently scarred. For a long time he didn’t tell interviewers about it. When he did, he admitted to a feeling of “betrayal” that life was capable of such cruelty.
He says, “When you’re young and you encounter the reality of death – especially if it’s not something you’ve been prepared for, because there’s not been an illness – it’s just something that arrives out of the blue, Boom!, this person is gone, deal with it. As you process that, when you’re 11 or 12, yeah, over time it loses its scare value, yeah. But you are stalked by it. It’s in your cortex – the knowledge that this thing is waiting at any moment to completely revolutionise your universe by taking away the people that you care most about. For no reason, randomly. Fuck yeah, if you go through that as a child, you start to contextualise your experience on earth.”
Years before she was widowed, he says, his mother experienced trauma at a similar age. She was a teenager when the Biafran war forced her family out of their home in northern Nigeria. After a succession of bereavements she had to take charge of their sudden relocation, aged 14. “My mother and I, we had experiences in our very formative years of randomness and chaos. And that meant we took a viewpoint on the way that the world is. As I get older, and she gets older, it put us in similar places in our psychology, I think. I’m always very interested in her point of view, because often it echoes mine. Not because ‘the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree’, but because of that echo in our experiences.”
This war was also the reason why my family left and went first to Paris and then to London. This is the reason why now I speak like this.”
“I used to spend my summers [in Nigeria] when I was a kid. As an adult, every couple of years. I recorded interviews with my grandfather, 10-hour long conversations, before he died. I’ve always had a long and fruitful relationship [with Nigeria].”
Growing up in London in the 1970s and 1980s
Remembering growing up in 1970s and 80s London, “I always loved it,” the actor recalls. “Even then I knew it was one of the centres of the world but as a black kid in a different time, something else was always present.
It often felt like everyone in the city was racist. We had to walk home through National Front marches. Institutional racism was just the norm.”
“And it’s interesting to think back, because while my parents were coming here from Nigeria and trying to be useful to society, black people were subject to constant hassle – and now we see these reports about paedophiles in the public eye who were able to avoid attention at the time, while all the focus was on immigrants. So when I see ‘blame the immigrants’ in the headlines, I think ‘Well, who else is this letting off the hook?’”
His acting career
At Dulwich College, he swiftly graduated from school plays to the National Youth Theatre and then drama school. There, however, the unexpected presented itself when a performance as Othello led to an invitation to audition for Amistad. Having met Idris Elba at the audition, he got the part, an “absurd but wonderful opportunity” that took him to Hollywood at 19. Chiwetel now divides his time between Britain and LA.
As a teenaged member of the National Youth Theatre, “I was a kid with this funny name. And people were like, ‘It’s going to be quite difficult for you to make any money as an actor.’” Later, at drama school, the name-change discussions came up again. If he stuck with Chiwetel, he was warned, he would play Africans for much of his career. He replied, “OK!” and went on to play Africans for much of his career, first a bit part in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) alongside Djimon Hounsou, later a meaty screen lead as a Nigerian immigrant in Dirty Pretty Things (2002). He played South African statesmen in Red Dust (2004) and Endgame (2009), and then, in 12 Years A Slave, Solomon Northup, an African American whose trials on a Louisiana plantation Chiwetel communicated unforgettably.
Race is an invention anyway,’ he says, ‘an invention created for finance.
Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)
“I’ve known Biyi Bandele [the film’s director] for many years. We’ve talked about a possibility of going back to Nigeria and making a film for a long time. Then this beautiful book came out, so it was a perfect mixture of events. It was a deeply personal experience. Because not only are my parents Nigerian, but also Igbo [an ethnic group from southeastern Nigeria] and from the exact region then that all the events of the film take place. I feel [African], but also distinctly Igbo. The south is a very specific place in Nigeria. I love being there. So the events [civil war-related] in the film happened to my own family. This part of our history is very defining.”
He spent a large chunk of last year banishing family demons in Nigeria, where he filmed Half of a Yellow Sun, based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant book about the Biafran war. There are personal elements of making the film for him as it was the conflict that prompted his parents to flee the country, emigrating to London, where they had Chiwetel, along with his elder brother and two younger sisters.
The fighting also uprooted his grandfather, a story Chiwetel captured on tape a few years ago. “We spent maybe 10 hours talking about the Biafran war and what it had meant to him. He was an accountant in the mining corporation in the north of Nigeria. By the end of the war, he was travelling with his entire family. They were migrating through the east as [the government] was trying to bomb villages. He didn’t have anything. Not a penny – a huge turn of fortune from being quite wealthy, to being destitute. He had eight children, and he lost one boy, my uncle Arthur, but everybody else survived. To play somebody almost the same age as my grandfather was when that was happening was really interesting, and emotional.”
12 Years a Slave (2014)
‘I think a perspective has existed right from this period that black people are interlopers and have had no part in the creation or infrastructure of the Western world,’ he says. ‘They are seen as late arrivals grabbing a cookie. Unwelcome guests. If you see a film like this, you understand that that is so completely not the history of how the industrialised Western world was created.’
“My own grandfather, for example, worked for the Mining Corporation in the north of Nigeria as an accountant. So when he was alive he would have told you, firsthand, where the money went. It went straight to Whitehall, to the foreign office. Everyone on the ground knew the deal. But today? The truth is purposefully obfuscated. Michael Gove recently mentioned not being critical of Britain in the education system – but this is just propaganda. And this is why people don’t know the background to certain statues or why people don’t understand that in a liberal democracy having statues of slave traders is an objective harm.”
After the murder of George Floyd
As the Black Lives Matter protests started, Chiwetel was one of many actors, producers and directors who stepped up and demanded immediate action from the gate-keepers of his industry.
Dated 23 June 2020 and addressed to “The UK television and film industry”, he was a signatory on a letter that stated, “While messages condemning racism and advocating for solidarity on social media may inspire hope, the UK industry must put its money and practices where its mouth is. A direct line can be drawn from the stories and voices that are silenced and ignored to the discrimination and biases that are pervasive in the entertainment industry and larger society. This moment in history presents an opportunity for you to be a positive partner for change.”
Today, the actor is no less hesitant about what needs to be done in regards to banishing racism from the ranks of the film industry and beyond. He recognises that this is a fight for justice and equality that has some way to go yet.
As a young boy, was Ejiofor taught about colonialism at school in Britain, about the history of black Britain? “Ha! We did the Restoration  on the Friday, came back to school on the Monday and started the First World War. That’s how I was taught. And I went to Dulwich College, a very good London school. That was the curriculum. No British imperialism or imperial adventure. Hardly any empire.“
You know, Salman Rushdie had a good quote, “The people of England don’t understand their history because most of their history happened overseas.” What was happening in the empire was and still isn’t taught. And those that were there, the witnesses, are decreasing in numbers.
What does the actor think of the current government and their reaction to something like the Black Lives Matter movement? Does he trust Boris Johnson to do the right thing? “I think that this entire political class belongs to a different era. The idea of a professional politician doesn’t mean anything to me. Who would you want in charge? Perhaps, like me, you’d want a type of politician that isn’t working the system for continual political gain, but is someone who is more representative of the broader spectrum of multicultural Britain, someone from the grassroots. The way the party system works, how people are elected to power, doesn’t seem vastly democratic to me. These men and women who all went to one or two schools and one or two universities seem desperately out of touch to most people.”
At times, he seems almost resigned to the fact change is going to be glacially slow. “Look, I know what non-representation feels like, as do so many black people in this country. To walk into a room and not see anyone who looks like you? I had to go to America to get the work I wanted, rather than get the support and work I wanted in the UK and that, to me, was shocking. Shocking.
“I also know what it feels like to be considered ‘other’. I grew up in the 1980s in Forest Gate, East London. Back then there was what is termed in America this notion of white flight – inner city, once predominantly white communities becoming more diverse. Let’s just say where I lived in the East End the white community wasn’t going particularly quietly.
“At times I remember I would have to come home from school through National Front marches, with my father holding my hand as we’d bolt across the road. I know what lack of representation means. I know how it can fester and build ideas of the ‘other’, how it can create xenophobia and what that feels like… a fear of the stranger. So am I optimistic? Yes… Yes, I am. Just cautiously so.”
At the time of writing, Chiwetel can be seen in The Old Guard on Netflix.
Sources: The Guardian, Time Out, The Independent, Radio Times