Things Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe undoes 50 Cent

Posted: September 20, 2011 in art/entertainment, arts/culture

It is on record that Curtis Jackson otherwise called 50 Cent has never lost a lyrical quarrel or beef, in rap music slang. In fact, the artiste is said to feed fat on beefing having virtually ended the music careers of fellow rappers and artistes in the United States who dared confront him.

It is rumoured among hip hop music fans and enthusiasts alike in the country that former member of the defunct Afro hip hop group, the Remedies, Eedris Abdulkarim never fully recovered from his short clash with 50 Cent over airplane seating arrangement when the latter was in Nigeria as a top attraction on one of the editions of the Star Mega Jam event

Jackson is a multi-million selling rapper/actor/entrepreneur and even more recently plunged into authoring with a children’s book and autobiography in the pipelines as well. It has become a rather known fact that aside from Sean ‘Jay-Z’ Carter, 50 Cent gets what he wants and when he wants it; on account of his wealth and influence.

On the other hand, however, Professor Chinua Achebe remains one of the continent’s biggest and most influential figures on the literary and social commentary plain. The past winner of the prestigious N14m Man Booker International Prize for Literature has bagged virtually everything in the literary world except the Nobel Prize and Dublin Impac Prizes; two of the world’s richest awards.

In addition, Achebe is a technocrat on the continent and even beyond. As far as he is concerned, Chinua Achebe believes money is never a determining factor in deciding upon a task at hand.

However, these two’s paths crossed recently and things did (literally) fall apart. It was a beef 50 cent lost and this time around may well put an end to his screen career on the strength of the weight of the loss view of the direction and character of the film in question.

Starring in a film which he personally funded with nearly two years of hard work and replete with the Hollywood top and veteran actors, and co-incidentally titled; Things Fall Apart, 50 cents had reached the stage when the movie was set to be released when lawyers of Professor Achebe called in to say that the title of 50 Cent’s proposed film was unacceptable to the literalist.

The movie, which stars 50 cent as an American football player diagnosed with cancer, unfortunately shared the same name as the classic 1958 novel written by iconic Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The novel tells the tale of an Igbo leader and wrestling champion named Okonkwo, as life in his village takes a challenging turn with the arrival of British Christian missionaries and colonialism. The highly acclaimed novel is read in schools across the world.

Not wanting to be involved in legal battles considering the short time left for the film’s debut, 50 Cent offered Achebe $1m to retain the title. But this was turned down by Achebe’s team. And so 50 cent at the last minute changed the title of his film to All Things Fall Apart.

The change was effected by the company distributing the film, Image Entertainment; influenced by the fact that the original title is also the name of a seminal, well-known piece of literature by Achebe, and so wanted to avoid further confusion.

Worst still, the film’s trailer did not particularly receive much accolade due to the fact that audiences had thought the film was going to be an adaptation of the original Chinua Achebe work, but to their disappointment turned out to be completely different in storyline.

It is believed also that this difference in theme may have by extension largely influenced and informed Achebe’s refusal to endorse the use of the same title as his bestseller.

The trailer for the much talked about film which had debuted a few months ago in March, and was met with mostly jeers from the viewing audience received bigger boos after being listed on the high-profile 2011 edition of the Urbanworld Film Festival, in New York, United States, that ended last week having ran from September 14 to 18, at the AMC 34th Street in midtown Manhattan, the reception was also disappointing.

Incidentally, the film directed by top African American actor, Marion van Peebles stars among others the veteran actress Lynn Whitfield, who is due in the country as a star attraction for the upcoming Africa International Film Festival scheduled for November, in Lagos.

Indeed, to say that 50 Cent has been undone by one of Africa’s greatest novelists, Achebe, would be understating the obvious, considering the huge cost incurred by the former and the loss of face suffered in doing the unusual by accepting defeat from a fellow artiste. As if that was not enough for the rap music artiste, All Things Fall Apart as a title that was settled for in a hurry film has been on the receiving end of torrents of bashing as critics have also slammed the producers for a title they consider as not even ‘elegant’ for a film title.

Hence, spelling doom for a film that is yet to be officially released in the market. Achebe may have also succeeded in doing what very few Africans could muster the courage to do when confronted by wealthy figures from the west.

Things Fall Apart remains till date Nigeria’s most famous English-language novel. It has sold more than 8m copies worldwide. Sadly, 50 Cent was not aware of this as he ignorantly spent much of 2010 shooting a film of the same name.

“It’s a project that I wrote, produced and financed myself,” he explained last year. Directed by Mario Van Peebles, it had initially premiered at the Miami film festival in March.

Many have wondered why Achebe may have turned down the $1m offer by Curtis, with some positing that Achebe is too rich to have accepted such an amount, just as some say the film is not even related to the book in thematic occupation let alone characterization. Some still argue that the manner of approach by 50 cent was un-African. Going by Achebe’s Africanness, the latter reason could well be true.

Achebe is 80 years of age and the novel in question was initially produced in 1958 which is 17 years before 50 Cent was born. Also, all 50 record sales do not even equal global sales from that book alone not including translations.

“The novel with the said title was initially produced in 1958 (that is 17 years before 50 Cent was born),” replied his lawyers, who added:  “[It is] listed as the most-read book in modern African literature, and won’t be sold for even £1bn.”

The extent of damage to 50 Cent’s film by Achebe does not register until one examines what went into the said film.

50 Cent reportedly lost 54 pounds in preparation for his role in the movie in which he plays a promising professional football player prospect in his senior year in college, whose career is challenged after he discovers that he has cancer – hence the drastic weight-loss. Some family drama, familiar tragic circumstances, self-actualization leading to redemption, all ensue.

Things Fall Apart, as it was originally titled, co-stars Ray Liotta, Lynn Whitfield, Mario Van Peebles, and Tracey Heggins.

Changing the title of a film when work on the film had been concluded amounts to reliving a film of its soul and character. This is most painful to the film’s crew than it is to the cast. A film that has suffered this fate effectively loses its artistic appeal.

Directors and producers have been known to stake their lives and reputation on preserving a film’s title. Without knowing it, Achebe may have cost 50 Cent his film career going by the not-too-encouraging reception scored by the film in the first instance.

The film was already threading a very thin line. Stripping it of its original title was a death knell delivered by the octogenarian author. If was meant to be revenge for all those toes 50 Cent had stepped on, then Achebe may well have written his best work as it is.

As events continue to unfold, however, observers have picked holes in Achebe’s position saying 50 Cent’s offer to approach Achebe on the title matter was enough respect to the man who is fondly called ‘father of African novel’ just as some are wont to question the copyright ownership of the title in dispute in the first place.

According to this school of opinion, ‘things fall apart’ is a phrase from a Yeats poem just as they also argue that there was also a book called The Centre Cannot Hold). Apparently, one man’s borrowed title can never be borrowed again.

Achebe did not come up with the title “Things Fall Apart.” He took the phrase from Anglo-Irish WB Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, written in 1919, which is 39 years before Achebe’s novel. The poem expresses Yeats’ feelings on the aftermath of the First World War. (Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.)

For this school, there exists no copyright for titles and 50 Cent should have kept his original title for his film, insisting however that if it were homage, it would probably not be a problem.

Recall also that Chimamanda Adichie’s opening sentence in the novel; Purple Hibiscus starts off like: Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere.

First published in 1958 – the year after Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence, as Britain, France and Belgium started to recognise the end of colonialism in Africa and began their unseemly withdrawal – Chinua Achebe’s debut novel concerns itself with the events surrounding the start of this disastrous chapter in African history.

Set in the late 19th century, at the height of the “Scramble” for African territories by the great European powers, Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo, a proud and highly respected Igbo from the fictional Umuofia. Okonkwo’s clan are farmers, their complex society a patriarchal, democratic one. Achebe suggests that village life has not changed substantially in generations.

However, then the English arrive in their region, with the Bible – rather than the gun – their weapon of choice. As the villagers begin to convert to Christianity, the ties that had ensured the clan’s equilibrium come undone.

As Okonkwo’s friend Obierika explains: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one.” Unwilling to adapt, Okonkwo finds himself the protagonist in a modern Greek tragedy.

The first part of a trilogy, Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to gain worldwide recognition: half a century on, it remains one of the great novels about the colonial era.

In all, however, this is the art world, where it is always a win-win situation for everybody, as they say. In the United States there is bound to be a mad rush to buy Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, if not for anything, just to see the book and story that finally whipped 50 Cent.

In Nigeria, on the other hand, and even in Africa, there will be a scramble to see 50 Cent’s All Things Fall Apart, at least, for the fun of it or better still, for critics, to see if all the drama over a title was even worth it.

When the dust finally settles over this controversy, both works of art will come out the better for it. Art sometimes needs some controversy to thrive.

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