Movies That Matter: Beasts of No Nation and Wars Not Our Own

BeastsThe American war drama in has been around for quite some time, but in recent years the trend has been towards adapting real life stories to the screen. American Sniper took theatres by storm in 2015, and was nominated for Best Picture that year. Before that, in 2008, The Hurt Locker actually did win Best Picture, along with 5 other Oscar wins. Kathryn Bigelow became the first (and only) woman ever to win Best Director. Currently in cinemas is 13 Hours, the Michael Bay directed interpretation of events surrounding the consulate attack in Bengazi, Lybia. War movies are not new.

What’s interesting then is when Beasts of No Nation came out on Netflix (not wide in theatres, which is a story in and of itself), that it did not seem to get a strong reaction. This movie, which is beautifully shot and directed by Cary Fukunaga, tells a representative story of the civil wars that are tearing apart certain regions of Africa. It was shot in Ghana, and with the notable exception of Idris Elba, employed local actors. This adds to the authenticity of the film. It is not based on any one true story, but rather is an adaption of a 2005 book by the same name that strives to capture the essence of what these wars are like.

Child Soldiers

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One of the most moving aspects of this film is its portrayal of what is a real life crisis in Africa, and that is the use of child soldiers to fight these wars. As the movie starts we get to meet Agu, a charismatic young boy who entertains those who pass through his village, and seems to have a few friends. We meet his family. We see his house.  And then we see it all start to get ripped away from him. His Mother is taken first, along with his sister and the other women in the community. Eventually the men that are left behind fall under assault, and Agu flees into the jungle, where he is eventually recruited by ‘The Commandant’. Elba plays the part of this war lord as simultaneously charming and menacing, and he becomes something of an anti-hero by the end of the story. You certainly never root for him, but he moves you to feeling for him as he, too, starts the movie with everything and ends it by having it all stripped away.

According to a 2009 Oxford Journal abstract, “Not only has Africa experienced the fastest growth in the use of child soldiers, but the average age of the children enlisted in some African countries is declining as well.” We hear and see media coverage of the middle east conflicts on a daily basis, but these civil wars that are tearing apart families and communities in parts of Africa go on without comment. Beasts of No Nation is an emotional reminder of how terrible war can be to those who fight, but it is all the more emotional and moving because we see this unfold through the eyes of a child.

Abraham Attah, first time actor who plays Agu, is brilliant in convincing in his performance. He is tasked with measuring up to Idris Elba, and he delivers on every take. You get every sense of the emotional torture he experiences, from losing everyone he loves, to building relationships again, and participating in unspeakable acts along the way.

Hard to watch, hard to sell

The Hollywood Reporter interviewed Fukinaga and Elba about the movie in December on their Awards Chatter podcast. They discuss a lot of the challenges they faced making this film, including how the subject matter made it a difficult film to sell:

Beasts, Netflix’s first original narrative film, is “a story about a boy in war and what happens to him,” says the 38-year-old [Fukunaga], who is best known for directing season one of HBO’s True Detective. That is not an uncommon logline; but what is uncommon, at least in American cinema, is that the boy in question is an African child soldier and the story unfolds through his eyes, as opposed to those of a “white savior.” Fukunaga asserts, “It’s a fairly dark film and a very difficult film to watch — many people have made comments about that — but it’s not impossible to watch.”

I agree it was not an easy film to watch, but that should certainly not discredit the quality of performance and filmmaking that are on display. Perhaps it is the lack of a ‘white savior’ as the director puts it that makes it difficult. We are forced to watch while having no real reference point with which to understand what is going on, because there is no character in the film that your average American citizen can connect with.  In many ways it feels more like a foreign film than an American made one.

When it comes to awards speculation, it is always difficult to suggest what should or shouldn’t have been nominated. That said, I was personally surprised that Elba was not nominated for Supporting Actor by the academy. He brings some real star power to this ‘other world’ movie that should be getting more attention and recognition than it is.

Beasts of No Nation is currently streaming on Netflix. Have you seen it yet? What did you think? Comment below and let’s keep the conversation going.

Movies That Matter is a regular feature on MovieSlant where we review a movie that makes important social commentaries and bring those themes out through real world understanding of the issues at play. 

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