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Film Review: Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation (2015; Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga)

What are we resolved to make of Beasts of No Nation? Directed and personally shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, True Detective), adapted by Fukunaga from Harvard-educated Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name (which borrows its title from an album by Nigerian musical legend Fela Kuti), Beasts of No Nation is, in most ways, a remarkable film. The story of a West African boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who is captured by and pressed into the ranks of a rebel army full of child soldiers and led by a charismatic but manipulative Commandant (Idris Elba), it’s frequently visually astonishing, wonderfully acted, and challenging, wrenching, and painfully sad. But it’s also emotionally cynical and sociopolitically sensationalist, bartering away its considerable aesthetic heft more often than it should in exchange for its target audience’s complicity in collaboratively experiencing an “authentic” cinematic expression of the apparently hopeless plight of modern Africa.

Like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, I can’t shake the echoes of Joseph Conrad’s deeply problematic but nonetheless vital monument of Western literature about Africa in particular and colonialism in general, Heart of Darkness, that resonate through the chambers of Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Agu’s journey in the Commandant’s retinue is a shadow of Marlow’s upriver penetration into the horror of the Belgian Congo, and Elba plays the Commandant as an African heir to the brutal feudal lord that Marlow finds there, the colonial boss gone horribly wrong (or insidiously right), Kurtz. But thematically and narratively, this reflection of Europe’s dominant literary model of the African paradigm implies a century-long discursive stasis that the rapid and unpredictable changes in the real-world African continent has lapped many times over. And yet, Africa’s footsteps continue to be haunted by the ghost of Conrad’s work and its profound but disturbing (and limiting) implications.

O’Hehir offers numerous examples of alternate films that present contemporary African life (and even Fukunaga’s specific subject of child soldiers) with a greater breadth and depth of insight, and the recommendations are worth pursuing. But those films are not streaming on Netflix like Beasts of No Nation, and do not feature a rapidly-rising Afro-Briton star like Elba prowling like a shrewd big cat and intoning mantras of twisted militarized collectivism to his pubescent legion. This is an African story that will be noticed, that will be consumed and considered and whose assumptions will be recognized and internalized by a mostly white audience in the industrialized, democratic-capitalist West.

What are those assumptions? The deflating permanence of brutal violence and organized disorder, the exploitation of weakness and desire, the impotence of decency and kindness, and the hegemony of fear, superstition, and predatory plunder. They are Conrad’s assumptions, too, arranged into a penetrative quest narrative construction that is also inescapably a descent into madness and darkness and savagery. Beasts of No Nation doesn’t begin that way. It commences with a sunny prelude of Agu’s innocent bliss in the midst of general poverty that is both a stereotype and the closest thing to a true expression of quotidian African life that Fukunaga has to offer. Agu and his friends run around with the wooden frame of a television set (we see the electronic components standing naked in his family’s home later on), offering to sell this dream machine and then re-enacting scenes from popular entertainment genres for the observer staring through the open space in the frame. It’s a simple but resonant device for expressing an idea of a culture whose dream-fulfillment is its own responsibility but has been left with only remnants of its former colonial hegemon’s expansive cultural and industrial infrastructure to work with.

Agu’s joy is encroached upon and his family is divided into inaccessible refugees and corpses by a brutal civil war, and he is swallowed by the jungle into which he flees, where he falls in with Commandant’s cult-like batallion of irregulars. The Native Defense Force, as they are called, initiates Agu into its ranks via propagandistic discourses, call-and-answer chants, and a tribal spiritual ceremony of mystical bloodthirst (the initiates pass under an arch crowned with human skulls to undergo the liminal ceremony, the clearest nod to Conrad in the film). He also must kill a man by burying a machete in his skull, an image both provocatively true of certain chaotic segments of Africa and purely, off-puttingly lurid. Fukunaga lingers on the scene with portent, daring us to parse the differences. Commandant also keeps his troops in line with buttered words and queasy abuses, including hallucinogenic narcotics. The latter memorably affect Agu’s perception during a vicious assault on an unfriendly village, as the foliage shifts to a sickly crimson tinge as the bloodshed commences (an uncredited borrowing of Irish artist Richard Mosse’s striking tinted photography of African combatants).

Without spoiling too much, Agu emerges from this ordeal intact but deeply changed (although the amazing and naturalistic Attah doesn’t play this landing on a safe shore as any species of redemption), like, one might extrapolate, Africa did from colonialism. But has Africa emerged from colonialism at all? Perhaps in some places, at some times, but then reducing a whole continent of over a billion people to the same determinist set of historical experiences and sociopolitical obstacles is just another form of the discriminatory constructions and damaging stereotypes that justified Europe’s sustained pillaging of Africa in the first place (and perhaps still does). Are cultural texts like Beasts of No Nation, as aesthetically powerful and vaguely well-intentioned as they are, small-scale catalysts in the drawn-out and difficult process of aiding Africans in dispelling the spectres of colonial brutality that continue to haunt them, or are they a contiguous portion of those persistent assumptions? Does a film like this serve to overcome, or does it need to be overcome itself?

For Joseph Conrad at the end of the 19th Century, the answers to these sorts of questions did not present themselves readily in the Africa of the moment. For Cary Joji Fukunaga in the early years of the 21st Century, they still do not. Is this a failure of these artists’ imagination or a statement of their subject’s ineffable complexity and inscrutable obscurity? Maybe a bit of both, although Conrad’s text at least grasps the gnawing anxiety of the unknown and unknowable and enfolds that feeling of philosophical emptiness into the nastier pits of despair and malignancy lurking deep in the Congolese jungle.

In both Heart of Darkness and Beasts of No Nation, brutality survives and thrives where deprivation strangles hope, and organized violence and plunder (the colonial legacy to trump all others) grow like trees watered by blood. The dark metaphorical revelation for a reader of Conrad’s time was that while Marlow expected to discover that Africa’s black core had perverted the trader Kurtz, what he finds is that Kurtz and his ilk brought a greater share of the darkness to those lands themselves. This history is distant but not unglimpsed in Beasts of No Nation, a film more concerned with the delayed aftershocks of that history on the identity and psychology of modern Africans than how the politics and society of modern Africa was shaped by it.

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Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews
  1. December 3, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    I like your review style, RossLangager. Very authentic :). Would love to feature your reviews in our weekly curated email digest that goes out to thousands of people.

  2. December 4, 2015 at 2:03 am

    Good review. It’s a very hard-to-watch film, but works so well because, at the end, there is at least some hope, that makes it work.

  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:07 am

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