“You think I’d let you starve to death? When I cut off my own arm to feed you, then you’ll know you’re my child.”
This powerful line, spoken by a mother to her daughter, in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind serves as a devastating reminder of the sacrificial nature of parenting. The movie explores the way that disappointment and failure can shape even the most loving parent, as well as the humility that each parent must possess in order to always put their child before themselves and ensure that their child can survive life’s most difficult trials.
The newest Netflix film tells the true story of William Kamkwamba (played by Maxwell Simba), a young boy living in the impoverished village of Wimbe, Malawi in the early 2000s with his father Trywell, his mother Agnes (played by Aïssa Maïga), and his older sister Annie (played by Lily Banda). Trywell and Agnes dream of sending their kids to university but when a drought causes several years of famine in Wimbe, the Kamkwamba family struggles to simply find a way to survive. However, when William devises a plan to create a windmill in order to provide his family farm with energy that is not reliant on rain, he ends up saving not just his family but the entire town as a result.
William’s story of using innovation and determination to overcome impossible odds is unquestionably moving but the movie avoids being a paint-by-the-numbers inspirational biopic thanks to William’s loving but fraught relationship with his parents, specifically with his father Trywell. As played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (who also directs the film), Trywell is a humble, hardworking farmer who wants nothing more than to provide a good life for his family. In the opening few minutes, you can see him beaming with pride as he sends William off to school, dreaming that his kids will have the opportunity to live far better lives than him.
However, due to circumstances outside of his control, most notably the famine and the government’s failure to provide relief to the people of Wimbe, Trywell soon finds that he is unable to pay for his son’s education and as the years pass, he’s left struggling to even feed his family. Despite the fact that Trywell obviously can’t control the weather or stop a famine through sheer force of will, the weight of this failure noticeably changes him as a father over the course of the father. He can no longer afford to think about the long term of his kids’ future; instead, he simply must focus on ensuring everyone survives to see another day.
“You have to be a man now, William,” Trywell tells his son while explaining why he can no longer go to school. “No one is coming to help us. I need you to work on this harvest with me. For every piece of grain we can get.”
Trywell’s transformation offers a devastating look at the way suffering affects parenting, with him losing much of his tenderness in favor of a hardened cynicism, which is magnified intensely due to a neverending cycle of tragic events, including their family being robbed of the little food they have, their family dog starving to death, and Annie running away with her lover in part because she wants to give her family one less mouth to feed. Eventually, the family is forced to choose what meal they will eat each day and in one of the most emotional scenes of the film, Trywell is forced to eat a meal in front of his hungry family and the desperation on their faces is nothing compared to the shameful pain in their father’s eyes.
The survival instincts of Trywell come to a head when William says that in order to build a windmill, he will need to dismantle his father’s bike, which Trywell uses to get supplies from the town, for parts. In the past, Trywell likely would have gladly made this sacrifice for his son but thanks to years of failure and disappointment, the bike is one of the few things he has left to provide anything for his family he sees this as a foolish endeavor and harshly rebukes his son and tells him he will work the field with him instead.
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At this point, it seems like Trywell has understandably lost all the hope that once filled him but thankfully, Agnes, who shows unbelievable perseverance in her own right, asks her husband to reconsider. In an act of unbelievable sacrifice and humility, Trywell swallows his pride and risks what little he has left by giving his bike to his son. At one point, he apologizes to William for failing him and his family but William is quick to let his father know that he sees how hard he has worked just to keep them all alive.
“You didn’t fail me,” William tells his father. “Never.”
At the end of the day, Trywell puts his faith in his son and this pays off for not just their family but for all of Wimbe, as William’s windmill is eventually able to provide power for the entire town, making it possible for them to maintain food and water even when they are in a drought. His dream of his children getting a good education even comes true, as William is able to leave Wimbe and attend the African Leadership Academy in South Africa before heading to Dartmouth to get a degree in Environmental Studies.
But while watching this happy ending, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that it would never exist without Trywell and Agnes doing everything short of literally cutting off their own arms to keep William and Annie alive. Because despite all the failure and hardship their family was forced to endure, these two persevered and embodied the true selfless nature of parenting.