THE BAFFLING CRITICISM OVER ‘BEASTS OF NO NATION’
a Review by Resoketswe Manenzhe
To start with, Beasts of No Nation is by no means a completely perfect movie; it has its issues, though very few and somewhat insignificant when considering the entire picture. I’ve watched and re-watched it in the space of less than a week. That’s how powerful I found it to be. Personally, I think it the strongest movie I’ve watched this year, closely followed by Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out. In trying to celebrate, analyse and spread news of what I think to be an exemplary cinematic experience, I took to the internet where, sometimes, it is possible to engage in civil conversation with anonymous subscribers of several forums.
I was pleased to find that largely, people enjoyed the film and shared my opinion. But then I found a few reviews that vastly differed from that. For the record, I agree that the subjective nature of art warrants applause from some individuals and therefore criticism from others. In fact, I support criticism since I believe it can help filmmakers, actors, etc. grow as artists, thus at least suggesting they may produce better material in the future. As a consumer, I want this to be the case.
However, the criticism for Beasts of No Nation, from what I’ve seen in some reviews, is centred on things I think are non-issues.
POLITICAL CONTEXT…OR THE LACK OF IT
In one review, the critic called for more political context, asking the question—“Why didn’t the filmmaker just come out and say, ‘this is Sierra Leone, or Liberia?’” One reviewer complained, rather persistently, that Cary Fukunaga should have strived for more “specificity.” There are several problems with these questions and demands, all of which I will try to outline in detail.
The whole thing really starts from the title. I think once you miss that, you may as well watch it as background noise while playing Candy Crush Saga or preparing your dinner. One of the things I applaud Cary for is that he kept the West African nation nameless. I was afraid he would decide to name it, despite the author of the book on which the movie is based having done otherwise. But he respected the author, the audience, and the intention of the omission enough to stick with it.
I acknowledge that Africa has a very complicated relationship with western media and that quite often, Africa’s issues are reported quite reductively and sensationally. And that’s putting it mildly. It becomes an “African” thing that’s being discussed, not a Nigerian, South African, Ivorian, Sierra Leonean or Liberian issue. Most reports can’t even be bothered to regionalise the relevant topic to West Africa, Central Africa, etc.; so forget getting a city or town name like Accra, Harare or Tzaneen. The blanket of Africa (and the interpretation of that) overtakes the issue and we ironically lose our identity in all of that. What this movie did is that it managed to both divorce and subtly hint at the seemingly natural link between the African identity and the plight of child militias. It was done sensitively, beautiful and quite deftly.
Firstly, the country is vaguely identified as a West African nation. This serves to provide the characters, both protagonists and antagonists, with something familiar and somewhat relatable. However, the movie does not go as far as trivialising the issues of any specific country by saying, “this is Ghana, or Sierra Leone, or Liberia, and this is how it is over there.” Fukunaga, and the author before him, both realise that by not naming the country, this remains a movie (and a book), not a sensationalised pseudo-documentary (or what would otherwise be a Hollywood version) of the horrors of Nation X, Y or Z. That is, the movie doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. This is one of the few cases where it was absolutely necessary to keep the nation in question as the inflated and frustrating “LOCATION: SOMEWHERE IN AFRICA. ANYWHERE, REALLY, WHO CARES? AS LONG AS AFRICA IS IN THERE.”
Secondly, one of the most overlooked aspects of the film is that it is essentially Agu’s journey. Everything is seen from his eyes. One reviewer in particular called attention to the lack of time spent on solidifying the meanings and definitions behind the several acronym organisations mentioned in the film. These things don’t matter for the following reasons: the first is that these things mean nothing to Agu; and since this is a narration of his life, seen through his eyes, the lack of focus on these things serves two purposes—it maintains the tone of the film and keeps Agu in character. Second to that, Agu is a child whose main desire has become to avenge the death of part of his family and the displacement of the balance.
From the moment Agu witnesses government soldiers executing his father and brother, his purpose, something heavily influenced by the charismatic Commandant, has been to revenge. As long as the people he’s fighting against are “the government”, nothing else matters. There comes a time when the rebel group’s acronym changes, yet Agu doesn’t seem all too troubled by the sudden amendment. He doesn’t even seem to care about the leaders in said acronym organisations; all he knows is that there was a change. What he doesn’t realise is that, as an expandable foot soldier, this means the objectives have also changed. And his desire for revenge somehow gets conflated with the drawbacks of a pretentious rebellion. Instead of fighting “the government” army, he and his cronies engage in needless violence against defenceless civilians—these are the objectives of the rebel group, not his; as such, Agu also loses himself in the endless (and possibly meaningless) acronyms.
His blissful ignorance, in my opinion, is a meant to indicate the harrowing nature of the entire thing. It also serves as a way for the film to refer to itself. Audiences are meant to find themselves wondering, “Just who are these people? What do they want?” But Agu, unlike us, doesn’t have the luxury to dwell on something that seems so insignificant when compared to everything else.
In one instance, a reviewer immediately took to Google after watching the movie in what I assume was an attempt to attach “specific” identities to the characters. That, to me, seems like the sort of point Uzodinma Iweala and Fukunaga were both trying to make. The point is that Agu does not go around viewing himself as this nationality or that one; he just goes around being human. His biggest concern is whether he can truly go back to being a child and if God and his family could ever forgive the crimes he’s committed. His nationality, be it Liberian or Leonean, is the furthest thing from his mind. His mother also provides a brief commentary on the matter. This is what she tells her husband—“I don’t want to be a refugee in my own country.” That’s what matters. And as I’ve already said—it’s all in the name of the movie.
Finally, to populate the film with the definitions of these acronyms, of their objectives, of their respective leaders, of the updated versions of the details, etc. would drown Agu’s tale and relegate him to a position of secondary importance to these issues. It would also require some semblance of accuracy in depicting these organisations, especially if a country name is specified. Once that happens, does the movie go as far as playing to the current political climate of said country, do president (and rebel leader) names and intentions get expositioned as well, what of the conflicts between different tribes, do we make Agu an Igbo or Yoruba boy, do we bury his clearly defined plight so far beneath all these issues in the name of political context? Where do we stop?
THE PROGRESSION OF AGU’S VILLAINY
A second target of criticism is the state of Agu’s village and his progression from child, to child soldier, and back to (haunted) child; tied to that is the state of the village prior to the transformation. I personally find it completely believable that the people of Agu’s family and village were largely untouched by the war. It was, after all, in what is known as a “buffer zone.” I can’t claim to have extensive knowledge on the matter but I don’t believe war is something that happens suddenly and sweeps everything all at once. My father was raised in Gauteng and my mother in what is now the Limpopo Province of South Africa. They had starkly different experiences of the apartheid era. Both were marginalised and have their own horror stories; however, they both attest that the oppression, and the civil war that almost followed it, was more prevalent in some areas and somewhat mild (for lack of a better word) in others. All in all, my understanding is that war spreads like a disease, it makes its way down (or up), fades in a few places, and somehow avoids a few.
Some even question whether it is possible for someone to have Agu’s experience; that is, is it realistic that he accepted his role as soldier so quickly, that he seemed to both relish and be tormented by it, that he abandoned it of his own volition, and that in the end, he seemed rather willing to be a child again. The first thing to consider here is the following: varying periods of time pass between scenes. At one point (towards the end), one of the “soldiers” mentions the battalion has been at a post for months. But between that and the previous scene, it only seemed like a day or so.
Time aside, the psychological tools employed by the Commandant were both marvellous and abhorrent. I believe the “soldiers” all became addicted to drugs at one point or another. And the way the children were initiated is how I would imagine a war lord (one who actually interacts with his soldiers) to treat his followers. He makes the children feel that they truly belong somewhere in their lives—a brotherhood of avengers. They have their own rituals of face-painting, of telling dirty stories and anecdotes around a fire and laughing, and when they finally go to battle, they all sing a song of the solidarity of rebellion.
The battle scene in particular was very strong. As they are singing, the Commandant goes around choosing his soldiers—the ones who will make the rebellion proud—he does this by touching his heart and then touching the heart of The Chosen Child. You can see the children who haven’t yet been chosen trying to gain his attention. This is something that makes them proud. After being touched, each child marched towards the battleground determined and confident.
As to the disillusionment, Agu gets raped by the Commandant, watches a friend die, becomes addicted to gun powder, and other tragedies that befall him; so I don’t see how it can be unrealistic for him to not find the prospect of child soldiering attractive in the long run. But besides that, a few basic things about him make it an extraordinary case i.e. he’s a child in a war zone. I think the accuracy of the progression is subject to the differences in human personalities in general; children might be more susceptible to variations since they tend to be more impressionable. And I don’t think a template exists on how a child soldier develops into and out of that role.
ON ENLIGHTENING PEOPLE WITH FIRST-WORLD PROBLEMS
The final big-three of the points of criticism is that Fukunaga “seemed to aim at informing people on the horrors endured by child soldiers.” To make this clearer, Steve McQueen was apparently approached by people who confessed they hadn’t imagined slavery to be as gruesome as depicted in his 2013 film—12 Years A Slave. The criticism with regard to Beasts of No Nation is that it seemed to aim at the same achievement as McQueen’s production. This is the most baffling criticism to me. Are we using the audience’s supposed ignorance on the filmmaker? Or is it their enlightenment we blame?
Is the criticism saying that, in depicting these horrors at a level that was apparently gut-wrenching and thought-provoking, Fukunaga did his job too well? My understanding of the objective of film and other forms of art is that, though meant to entertain and momentarily separate us from the routine of life, it is meant to inform us and offer commentary on the state of our world, its issues and whatever else is relevant. This particular film is about a child soldier, to make it about something else, and to hide some of its horrors in the interest of “not pandering to the supposed ignorance of people untouched by the problem,” seems both presumptuous and dishonest.
For example, when I watched Angelina Jolie Pitt’s In the Land of Blood and Honey, I fully expected the depiction of gruesome rape since from the main premise and trailer, I was aware that was the subject matter of the film. In this case, rape was not used as a needless plot device, it was the plot. I could not claim, especially considering the needless rape of female characters in fictitious works, that the rape in Jolie Pitt’s film was also “needless (for lack of a better word).” In the case of Beasts of No Nation, needless violence, unimaginable horrors, the corruption of innocence, avoidable war and death, the general shit of war, that stuff is the intended plot. That is what I expect from a movie with such a title and with the released trailer. To go into this movie movie expecting something else, perhaps a watered-down version, is simple denial, in my opinion.
I think the movie needed to be as gruesome as possible. If someone said to me, “here’s a movie about a kid somewhere in West Africa, he’s just being a boy.” Then I would agree that there was unnecessary violence and all the other stumbles apparently preventing the film from being as well-made as could have been. But again, this was a movie about a child soldier, from discovery to initiation, from complacency to disillusionment, and slightly beyond. It had to be done the way it was. It makes no sense for the things that happened to have done so off-screen.
AFRICAN GUY #55 FROM AFRICAN COUNTRY #55
Lastly, Idris Elba has been criticised as…I have to admit I don’t quite understand this one. It went something like this, “He seems like an actor and not the character he should be playing. He also sounds how I would imagine an actor doing an African accent would sound.” First of all, there is no such thing as an African accent. The same way there isn’t a European or Asian accent. It’s ignorant to assume such a thing exists. What Idris does in Beasts of No Nation, is very close to how Agu speaks—so we can assume he went for a Ghanaian accent in order to maintain consistency in the movie.
I suppose it’s difficult for non-Africans to tell the difference between the various accents of the various African regions. I have to suppose this because how else can I explain someone criticising Idris’s “African” accent? It would be fair to listen very closely so as to hear whether he masters the accent of everyone else in the movie, which in my opinion, he comes very close to doing.
And it didn’t end with the accent; his mannerisms were also very believable. He is one of few western actors who understand that adopting an “African accent” goes beyond adopting a flatter, less drawn-out tone in some cases, and a higher, more musical one in others. Sometimes he speaks with his body, and sometimes words that end with vowels are drawn out—like when Agu calls out Strika’s name after the latter’s death. “Strikaaaa!” he says. To bring up another movie of his, Long Walk to Freedom, he didn’t completely get it in that movie. He captured Nelson Mandela’s speech habits to compensate, but the accent, relative to the other actors in the movie (especially the ones living in Mvezo), was a little off at times.
All of that said, technically, Idris cannot fail with his accent in this movie because, firstly, we don’t know his nationality, and secondly, we don’t know what region of that specific country he hails from. To me the complaint sounds rather shallow. It seems to say that he wasn’t ugly enough to play the antagonist/villain. But that’s just my opinion and how I read the criticism.
Finally, there is some question on his name. He is always addressed by his title of ‘Commandant’ in the movie. I found this realistic since the battalion he commands fancies itself an official military wing of sorts. It doesn’t seem necessary to learn his name from Agu’s perspective. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for children to address their elders in an honorary fashion; Afrikaners use tanie and oom, Tswanas use mme and ntate, Xhosas use tata and mama, etc. It would have been pure exposition to just suddenly add the character’s name since there was never a moment in which it was necessary to do so. His (Idris’s) superior, on the other hand, addresses him with the title as a way of placating him, as a way of making him believe he matters than he actually does. So different people use the same tool but for different reasons.
I have more to say on this, but for now, hope those of you who care enjoy reading this.