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Beasts of No Nation : A Review



Beasts of No Nation is the story of a young boy who struggles to survive in his West African homeland as civil war ravages the country. The film is shot, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, and is based upon Uzodinma Iweala's novel of the same name. The film stars Abraham Atta as the young boy Agu, and Idris Elba as "Commandant", a leader of a group of rebel fighters.

Beasts of No Nation is unquestionably one of the best films of the year. It is a devastating portrait of the making, and life, of a child soldier in a vicious and brutal war. Director Fukunaga masterfully gives the viewer the palpable sense of fear that thrives amidst the chaos and disorder of a country coming apart at the seams. It is out of this fertile intense fear that ruthless child soldiers are born, and atrocities committed. Fukunaga deftly shows Agu's transformation from a frightened little boy wretched from his loving family and alone in the world, to being a young man thrown in with a 'new warrior family', who frightens his world.

Beasts of No Nation has drawn comparisons to Apocalypse Now, and rightfully so. While it is not as great as that iconic classic, it certainly illustrates the same maniacal senselessness of fighting in a war with no meaning, no purpose and no end. At its mythic core, the film is really about a world absent of the feminine energy, or Anima. When Agu's mother must leave the war zone, Agu is left behind to emotionally fend for himself as a boy among the men. He knows this is the beginning of his perilous hero's journey from boyhood to manhood. When a boy evolves he needs both the Anima (feminine) and the Animus (masculine) to shape and form him during this delicate developmental period. Without the symmetrical push-pull tension of feminine vs. masculine, no psychological balance and harmony can be created. Not to mix animal metaphors, but when the Mama bear is not there to protect and nurture her cubs, then they must run with the ruthless wolves. With the wolves of men, no quarter is asked and none is given. Men can teach a boy how to be a man, but they cannot teach him how to be human. Beasts of No Nation shows what happens when the fragile Yin and Yang of masculine/feminine is knocked out of balance. As the film teaches us, when the Anima vanishes and the Animus is left to reign alone, violence, sadism, madness and rape prosper.

Writer/Director Cary Joji Fukunaga was also cinematographer on the film and he paints with a powerful and intricate touch. His camera movements and use of color are exquisite and give the film a distinct visual style. To be fair, I read a bit about a charge of "photographic plagiarism" on Fukunaga's part involving stealing a still photographers approach to shooting child soldiers under the influence of drugs. If the charge, which I take to be a very serious one, is true, it is a damning one. There is a thin line between paying homage to another visual artist, and downright theft, but when that line is crossed it is a deplorable act. Fukunaga is obviously an enormous storytelling and visual talent, I certainly hope he chooses to fall back on his own ideas and not borrow or out right steal from any other artists in the future.

As for the acting, Abraham Atta is an absolute powerhouse as Agu. He makes the transition from being a typical little boy who pesters his brother and is afraid to be away from his mother, to being a cold blooded killer, seamlessly and effortlessly. There is not a single false note from him in the entire film. He is a genuinely grounded, charming and dynamic screen presence. Atta is a Ghanaian born actor, and I really hope he is able to continue to work and grow as an actor in the years to come as he is a natural.


Idris Elba gives a staggering performance as "Commandant". Elba is one of the best actors working in film and television today. He can do drama and comedy, he can play the leading man or the villain. In Beasts of No Nation he plays a complex and charismatic leader of a rag-tag band of soldiers fighting government troops in a civil war. Elba's Commandante has an undeniable magnetism that lures both the viewer and Agu under his spell. Commandante is both bully and best friend, a father figure and a foe to Agu and the viewer alike. Without an appealing and forceful actor like Elba playing the role of Commandante, the narrative of the film would fall apart, as Agu's transformation would not be unbelievable for the audience if they themselves don't simultaneously fall under the Commandante's hypnotic allure right along with Agu. 

The rest of the cast are all Ghanaian born actors who do tremendous work. The entire cast is spot-on in their work and completely committed, bringing a chilling sense of realism to the picture. Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye as the mute child warrior Stryka is particularly fantastic. His character never says a word but conveys more than words ever could. Quaye carries a world and war weariness on his face that says more than any dialogue. Just a look from Quaye's Stryka can break your heart, or stop it, depending on his intentions. Quaye, like Atta, is a vibrant screen presence and an actor of undeniable intrigue. 

There has been a lot of talk about Beasts of No Nation and Elba, in particular, being snubbed by the Academy Awards because the film is a "black' film and Elba a black actor. I have written previously my thoughts on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, so I won't go into great detail here. I will say this, Beasts of No Nation deserves to be nominated for Best Picture, Elba, and maybe even Quaye for Best Supporting Actor and Abraham Atta for Best Actor. The fact that they weren't nominated has nothing to do with race, it has to do with the film industry. Beasts of No Nation was distributed by Netflix, which made the film available immediately on it's online service. Netflix also skirted some distribution agreements with theaters and therefore only released the film into theatres in very limited areas for a short time. The Academy views Beasts of No Nation as a tv movie since it went online at the same time it went into theaters. This is why it was overlooked by the Academy.

Regardless of all that, the film deserves to be seen and admired. Fukunaga deserved a Best  Director nomination as well, but was overlooked right along with the film, Elba, Quaye and Atta. Race was not why that occurred. Right or wrong, the business is why it occurred.

In conclusion, Beasts of No Nation is a spectacular film. I saw it as a SAG dvd screener and desperately wish I could have seen it on the big screen. It is a visually dazzling, dramatically compelling and emotionally potent film. The acting, directing, writing and cinematography are all top notch and nearly flawless. I highly recommend you take the time and watch Beasts of No Nation, as it is most definitely worth your time and attention.