2015’s Beasts of No Nation, based on the novel of the same name, is an un-compromising war drama that tells a shocking and touching story soaked in real-world brutality. Civil War in an un-named African country sees Agu -played by young Abraham Atta in his debut role- lose his parents before being forced to join a rebel militia known as the NDF. The film is directed and written for the screen by Cary Fukunaga who is perhaps best known for directing the first series of HBO’s award winning True Detective.
Idris Elba was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role as the NDF’s vicious and twisted commandant and was ultimately unlucky to lose out in the supporting actor category to Mark Rylance for his role in Bridge of Spies. Elba captures brilliantly the charismatic leader whose bravery and quasi-paternal stylings make him a favourite with his rag-tag band of child soldiers and outcasts, his performance is equalled though by teenage Abraham Atta’s hugely memorable depiction of Agu.
Admiring Elba’s performance can’t help remind us of the controversy surrounding the lack of nominations for black actors at the 88th Academy Awards. This performance definitely seems nomination-worthy, especially when fans remember Sylvester Stallone’s relatively surprising nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category for Creed.
To consider the effect of war and its atrocities has been attempted by cinema countless times, but to do so through the eyes of a child is something quite remarkable.
Beasts of No Nation does not depict any particular historical conflict and the book, by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala similarly avoids geographic specificity. Instead the film captures the essence of the horror that African civil conflicts have produced. Arguably distancing the story from any specific events and instead using Agu as a lens through which to look at the horrors of civil war, violence and child soldiery invites the audience to be a little more thoughtful rather than attributing the horror, in isolation, to one specific historical event. The use of children as soldiers is unfortunately too widespread to be attributed to certain conflicts in isolation, as are many of the other visceral and shocking crimes and horrors that Beasts of No Nation offers its viewers: the fact that there is no ‘based on a true story’ notice tagged onto the opening credits could not make less difference. This film will shock you and its events are as real as any ‘true story’.
In watching Beasts of No Nation expect to be gripped, upset, shocked and, perhaps most importantly, to have a lot to think about as the end credits roll. To consider the effect of war and its atrocities has been attempted by cinema countless times, but to do so through the eyes of a child is something quite remarkable. Traditional education is replaced with that of the near-tribal battalion of NDF ‘warriors’, just as Agu’s father is replaced by a man who is as unique as he is abusive and as fearless as he is twisted. No real aspects of Agu’s childhood remain- it is in effect stolen from him and some of the most memorable moments of Beasts of No Nation are those that make clear how stark that contrast, between the innocence of young boys and the cruel realities of a particularly vicious conflict, are.
Beasts of No Nation succeeds 12 Years a Slave and Selma as the recipient of the ‘Cinema for Peace Award for Most Valuable Movie of the Year’. While this perhaps is not the most widely known accolade, the comparison with these two thoughtful and brilliant films is deserved and while Beasts of No Nation may well be the most harrowing film you’ll see this year, when it finishes you’ll defy anyone to question that value.
By George Storr
For more articles, news and updates Like Maverick Film on Facebook