Film Review: Beasts of No Nation

By Ockydub | Posted Oct 19 2015 | 5 Comments  

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“I just want to be happy in this life. If I’m telling this to you, you will think that…I am some sort of beast or devil. I am all of these things…but I also had a mother, father, brothers and a sister once. They loved me” – Agu

Over the last couple of years, Netflix has become a power house in how scripted media is consumed. The streaming service continues to build on its critically acclaimed original series such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Now Netflix has entered into original feature film territory with Beasts of No Nation…and it absolutely doesn’t disappoint.

The film is based on Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name and shows how easily captured young boys are initiated and indoctrinated into becoming a “child soldier”. Beasts is beautifully directed by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective S1), who reportedly had been working on the adaptation since 2006. I almost felt as if I was “cheating” or getting over, by not seeing this film in theaters.

Beasts’ starts off innocently with the introduction of 11 yr old Agu (played by newcomer Abraham Attah) and his group of neighborhood friends. We see them going around town attempting to sell a shell of an old television as they act out marital arts and dramas from behind the missing screen. We go onto see the day to day life for Agu and his family sprinkled with humorous moments. There’s a subtle nod to the influence of hip hop as Agu’s brother dances to the old school “Wild Style” theme. Their childhood imagination and innocence is still abundant within the confines of the Nigerian / UN peace keeping buffer zone.

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Viewing the teaser and extended trailers, you know doom is on the way. After the rebels bring chaos and death to Agu’s community, he escapes to the jungle to survive while mourning his losses. Agu begins his journey as a child soldier after he is eventually captured by a group of rebels lead by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). The Commandant has a compelling leadership style and a large sway over the group, which may be influenced by a connection to tribal roots and customs. This sets the contrast between Agu’s Christian influences and traditional African culture that exists through out the film.

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I’m sure most have seen or heard about the horrors of children forced into fighting in paramilitary troupes and caught up in a region’s civil war. Even though Beasts graphically shows many of these horrors (killings, executions, rapes, drug use), surprisingly it strongly hints at the trauma of molestation and sexual assault that typically is inflicted upon the younger soldiers by the older boys or men higher in the ranks.

Fukunaga’s cinematography is part of the reason I felt like I was “cheating” while watching the film. Another reason is the score by Dan Romer which is haunting in parts and makes some of the more active sequences seem surreal. Many of the scenes throughout the film feel like they need to be shown on the big screen. In one scene we see a tiny, almost invisible Agu in comparison to the overall vastness of the large encompassing jungle, providing a sense of bewilderment and loss. To me what pushes the emotional conflict is the continued focus on Agu’s facial expressions (or sometimes lack thereof) and body language. Initially he obviously doesn’t want to commit these atrocities but we see him go from being forced, to becoming numb to the violence. We see a boy transformed into a killer along with how drugs are used as attempts to empower and ease distress.

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I strongly feel the viewer should examine the similarities between child soldiers and inner city youth as it relates to the psychology of violence and environment. Although it is not the same type of violent environment, there are psychological parallels to the atmosphere that exits in war torn countries (by drugs, religious or civil unrest) throughout the world and within the landscapes of cities like Chicago and Baltimore. Many boys and young men go through a process of becoming disenchanted with life and desensitized to death and murder. Just like in the film, many young black and brown boys are not giving a proper opportunity to grow and evolve constructively without disorder once they find themselves in dysfunction.

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I was emotionally caught off guard by Abraham Attah’s break out performance as Agu and the way Fukunaga brought his turmoil to screen. In addition to Attah, one should also take note of the other young actor Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye for his performance as Strika, fellow child soldier and Agu’s friend. As the story unfolds, I found myself questioning – even with all his vileness – was the Commandant fighting on the side of an oppressed people that were being slaughtered by the government? Was he once in Agu’s position and used the unfortunate circumstances to his advantage to become Commandant? Maybe not, but that conclusion could be made of the character 2 IC (Commandant’s young second in command played by Kurt Egyiawan) who appears to be closer in age to many of the soldiers. I think that is the beauty in Elba’s performance; he is very convincing and you don’t technically know if he and his rebels are representing the good or bad side of the civil war. A large portion of the two hr and fifteenth min run time give me a sense of helplessness and “deflated humanity”, similar to which I had when viewing Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April (also starring Idris Elba).

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Beats of No Nation has captivated audiences and critics and is generating Oscar buzz for Fukunaga’s directing/cinematography and Attah’s performance. Giving the make-up of the voting body of the Academy, I think this may be wishful thinking. The Hollywood spin machine has already labeled Beasts a flop due to only making around $51,000 its opening weekend, showing in only 31 theaters nationwide. It should be noted that most theater operators boycotted the movie and have threatened to do the same with other upcoming Netflix films. Something tells me there are elements in Hollywood that fear Netflix’s model and growing success.

Netflix continues to charm network and cable television audiences with series like Narcos and the upcoming Marvel series Daredevil S2 along with Jessica Jones. Now it looks like they may start a trend of keeping some folks home instead of partaking in an expensive night at the movie theater. Netflix has announced that they will be releasing the sequel to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon on the same day of its release in China and in select IMAX theaters. They also have announced War Machine starring Brad Pitt but have not given a release date. If Netflix continues to bring their customers exclusive films that are as good as, if not better than Beasts of No Nation, they may change the game and continue to freak out Hollywood.

Cypher Avenue Rating: 4 of 5      
About the Author
Ockydub

Octavius is a founder and editor of Cypher Avenue. He's here to help speak for us and show the world that masculine gay / bisexual men of color are not a part of the stereotypical gay normal that is seen and fed to the masses. No...we are a distinct breed, filled with character and pride. Cypher Avenue is here to show the world how we are different.

   
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5 Comments Feel Free To Join The Cypher.

  1. Infinite_loop | October 20th, 2015
    0

    This was one of the more personally touching movies on Netflix( they hardly have any movies that interest me, I am usually on there for the shows ). Not only because it hit close to home as someone who experienced a similar violent civil war as a young boy, but also because it was a showcase of what a great talent Attah really is. A teenager, amateur actor who has never acted in a movie before, being positioned by the media at large for an Oscar is quite an accomplishment.

    As for theaters being salty about the movie launching simultaneously in both mediums, they better get with the program. They should probably contact the taxi cab unions to ask them what they did about Uber…IJS

  2. Sean
    Sean | October 20th, 2015
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    I'm glad to see this movie highlighted on here. It was a great movie, definitely worthy of an Oscar nod, and Attah should definitely be considered. He did an excellent job.

  3. jpo
    jpo | October 20th, 2015
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    ALERT – MANY SPOILERS BELOW

    ockydubFukunaga’s cinematography is part of the reason I felt like I was “cheating” while watching the film. Another reason is the score by Dan Romer which is haunting in parts and makes some of the more active sequences seem surreal. Many of the scenes throughout the film feel like they need to be shown on the big screen.

    I just saw the film in a theater and recommend seeing it in a theater even if you have streamed it. Against the background of the forest, Agu's size is all the more striking. And the reddish wash of the scene you posted above suffuses the entire theater. Also the scene in which Agu wanders through the water-filled trench conveyed a claustrophobia that was overpoering in the theater.

    That scene as Agu worked his way through the tranch, all the time invoking his mother, summoned up the image of Agu traveling through his mother's birth canal, but in a reverse direction. If I had any doubts about Fufunaga's gifts as a director they were demolished in that scene.

    The performances all around were strong. The Commandant's transformation from the charismatic leader and former of men to the supplicant and abandoned leader is gradual. You sense it coming. And at the end you can almost envision him wandering diminished through that towering forest we saw Agu in earlier. Agu and Strika seem to feed off each other's silences.

    Through all the brutality, the humanity of the boys shines through, I think especially in two scenes, one on the back of the lorry in the rain after Agu has killed a man and he tries to get Strika to speak to him. The second when Agu carries the dying Strika on his back and then literally lays him to rest. As if out of nowhere his companions emerge to cover Strika with large fronds.

    There were any number of moments when I thought of the time not so long ago when there was an active drug market on my corner. Most of the guys out there were young, kids who grew up in the neighborhood. I got to know some of them, I talked with them, said hello whenever I saw them and in that was challenged by many of my new neighbors who only saw young thugs selling drugs, who never saw the kid, the person. They too had/have mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and sometimes children of their own..

    A final thought about the theater owners. They never can get it, never understand that their world is changing and instead of seeing something like this Netflix venture as an opportunity to figure out how to adapt to change, they just cover their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears and hope it all goes away. Not a chance.

  4. SB3
    SB3 | October 21st, 2015
    0

    Def hype about checking this film out. I recently read a headline about how movie theatres were angry w netflix, but scanned right by it. I guess I know why now

  5. alton
    alton | October 25th, 2015
    0

    This was a great movie




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