Beasts of No Nation

October 28, 2015 at 11:51 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Americans are probably most familiar with director/producer Cary Joji Fukunaga through his work on season 1 of “True Detective.” The first work of his that I saw was his full-length directorial debut, the independent 2009 film, “Sin Nombre.”  In both of those examples, Fukunaga showed a penchant for brooding themes and a cynical view of humanity, as well as a keen ability to create mood and evocative visuals. All of this is on display in his new film, released last week in theaters and on Netflix simultaneously. Idris Elba (“Prometheus,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the various “Thor” films and the tv series, “Luther”) plays an unnamed African warlord of the Joseph Kony ilk. But the story’s primary focus is 12 year-old Agu (Abraham Attah in his film debut). The film begins with Agu describing himself as “a good boy.” That is not how he describes himself by the end. That journey from innocence to horror is a difficult one to watch. Fukunaga pulls no punches here and the audience will witness Agu face (and participate in) almost every imaginable evil. It could feel exploitative if we didn’t know that the facts behind this fictional account are true; there is no exaggeration here on what boy soldiers are being forced to face. But, while it is full of disturbing images, it contains real beauty. Fukunaga is a very visual film maker and he uses the gorgeous African landscape to full effect. The film is a wash with deep green vegetation and stunning orange soil. Those recurrent colors were beautiful and created an ironic backdrop for the scenes that unfolded within them. The film was also grounded by the touching relationship between Agu and Strika; it breathed humanity into the story and reminded us that these are, in the end, just children. While all of the acting was strong, both Elba and Attah were brilliant in their roles. Elba played the charismatic but insecure commander perfectly. In a fair world, Attah would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. It was remarkable to see a young first-time actor display such range of complex emotions. The film hinges on the relationship between these two and it is worth seeing just for their performances alone.  Now, I feel the need to comment on the fact that I’ve read some reviews that have accused the film of racism because it displays Africans doing horrible things to each other. However, that seems entirely wrong-headed to me. Shining a light on monstrosities is a valid role that cinema can play and we shouldn’t shy away from that because of the race of the participants. I didn’t see any accusations of racism leveled against Angelina Jolie for her film on the atrocities committed by Serbs against Bosnians. To suggest that we can be critical of the evil done by some Europeans but not by some Africans seems to imply that Africans are more delicate and less capable of handling criticism. When that commentary comes from a White American journalist, I can’t help but wonder where the real damaging assumptions lie.

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