“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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.