Beasts of No Nation

Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Drama (Netflix/Bleecker Street) Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Affadzi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Fred Nii Amugi, Grace Nortey, Ebenezer Annanfo, Zabon Gibson, Randy Aflakpui, Justice Promise Azduey, Annointed Wesseh, Abdul Mumin Mutawaki. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

The things that are done in war are as brutal and inhuman as our species get. In fact, “inhuman” is a bit of a misnomer; in many ways, war defines our species so the things we do, the brutalities we inflict are very human indeed.

Agu (Attah) is a young boy in a village in an unnamed African country that is being torn by civil war. Utilizing an old TV set with most of its innards torn out, he and his friends use this “imagination TV” to entertain villagers by creating television entertainment. The civil war has been far away from then until word comes that the rebel troops are coming.

Knowing that the fighting will soon come to their village, the women and children are set to be taken to a place of safety. His mother (Abebrese) and his baby brother are allowed to go but the drive of the vehicle refuses to allow Agu aboard. Reluctantly, his mother leaves promising to come back as soon as the fighting is over.

But it is the government troops that come into the village and start slaughtering the males who had stayed behind to fight, including Agu’s father (Amissah-Sam) and brother. Rebels find the traumatized Agu hiding in the hills and he is brought to their Commandant (Elba) to be executed but instead the Commandant keeps Agu on as a child soldier and gives him to the mute Strika (Quaye) to train.

The training is brutal and the fighting worse. These young boys (and girls) are made to do terrible, horrible things, unthinkable things. Agu doesn’t do these things out of rage but out of fear; fear that if he refuses, the Commandant will have him butchered. He lives in a constant certainty that he is going to Hell once he dies for the things he has done – his mother was a fervent Christian. And the more he sees and the more he does, the more certain he is that his soul has been tainted.

This isn’t the first movie to depict the plight of child soldiers but it certainly is one of the most powerful. Much of this is because of Attah, the gifted young actor whose dead-eyed fear-wracked expression is much more powerful than any dialogue could convey. Attah has to be both a normal young African child and a ruthless child warrior and he pulls both off effectively. I honestly don’t know if he has plans to continue his acting career but based on the notices he has gotten for his work here that road is definitely open for him.

English actor Idris Elba has been described as a force of nature and he is the polar opposite here to his performance in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. His Commandant is manipulative, sadistic and simply the essence of evil but the Commandant doesn’t see himself that way; rather the character thinks of himself as a great man, doing whatever it takes to make change in his country – however he doesn’t really do this for love of country so much as love of power and when his political position becomes more and more untenable, the dynamic changes until the fear that he once inspired is gone.

The movie was privately financed by Fukunaga who sold the broadcast rights to Netflix. The streaming giant, looking to release movies on their own both on their service and theatrically, offered to give the movie a theatrical run; the larger theatrical chains said no thanks, despite it’s award winning festival run and Oscar buzz. The precedent, went the thinking, of releasing movies simultaneously on Netflix and in theaters would be an end to their business and they may have a point  The Landmark chain, consisting primarily of art houses, however have opted to present it in their theaters so if your town has a Landmark cinema it is likely to be there.

Fukunaga, whose previous project was the massively acclaimed and overwhelmingly popular HBO miniseries True Detective has been working on this project off and on for seven years. He contracted malaria while filming it in Ghana and put up with budget cuts and major difficulties with African officials and law enforcement. There is a great deal of sensitivity in the region about these wars and how they are depicted; there are some American liberals who say that this film plays to the racist element in our society, which is a load of horseshit.

We can’t ignore crimes against humanity because of the color of the skin of those who commit them. Black lives do matter; that’s why it shouldn’t matter the color of the skin of the people who are destroying them and ending them, whether a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri or a black warlord in Somalia. This is a story that should be told and it is a story that here at least has been told extremely well.

REASONS TO GO: Incendiary performances by Elba and Attah. Realistic and intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a little bit during the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence, some of it disturbing – some of it committed by or against children. Some sexuality and rape, and a lot of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukunaga intended to cast former child soldiers as extras for the movie but a large number of them were arrested in Ivory Coast on suspicions of being mercenaries and so Fukunaga was forced to go with local extras.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
NEXT: Hot Sugar’s Cold World

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