Beasts of No Nation and the child soldier movie genre

Beasts of No Nation promo pic

Distributed by Netflix, American director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of No Nation is receiving rapturous praise from mainstream critics in Europe and the United States, nearly all of whom, in asserting the film’s singularity, seem distinctly unaware of the fact that it belongs to a rather robust, longstanding cinematic subgenre. Extending the category of the war film, this particular subgenre sees African child soldiers perpetrating acts of extreme violence within vaguely sketched sociopolitical conditions.

Like the novel on which it is based, Beasts takes place in an unnamed African country shaken by an unspecified and ongoing conflict. But while the novel is written in a variant of English that strongly suggests the influence of various Nigerian dialects, the film’s first act features characters speaking Twi, an Akan language widely used in Ghana. That Twi goes unmentioned in the publicity surrounding Beasts is a measure of the filmmakers’ commitment to their gimmick—to the coy presentation of an ill-defined “Africa” as a screen on which spectators might project their assumptions. Indeed, mainstream critics are split on the subject of the film’s “real” setting: A. O. Scott sees Sierra Leone or Liberia, while David Edelstein insists it’s the Democratic Republic of Congo. In any case, the film sets out to depict one possible process through which a mere boy might become a murderous soldier, strategically dispensing with Twi as soon as the boy, Agu (played by the remarkable Abraham Attah), takes to the forest to escape the troops responsible for the deaths of his father, brother, and friends. As if in a dream, the boy suddenly finds himself in thrall to a charismatic commandant (played by the great Idris Elba) who leads a squadron of child soldiers on an ambiguous quest to “reclaim” the country.

It is a testament to Elba’s talent and inventiveness that he rejects standard actorly approaches to the madness of military leaders, offering a surprisingly lethargic, drawling take on the brutal commandant. Far from fresh, however, is the film’s take on the subject of child soldiering in sub-Saharan Africa. At least two writers—Julie MacArthur on Shadow and Act and Zeba Blay on The Huffington Post—have drawn attention to such important antecedents of Beasts as Newton Aduaka’s Ezra (2007), Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008), and Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (2012), films that, in hailing from various sites and sources of production, have helped to construct the child-soldier subgenre as a truly transnational affair.

That Fukunaga’s Beasts breaks no new narrative or thematic ground is scarcely a sin. But the film evokes the type of Tarzanism by which Western cultural producers perpetually seek to gain artistic legitimacy, proffering a cinematic vision of reflexive violence (couched as inherently, ahistorically “African”) as well as an especially aggrandizing, extratextual portrait of an American male director who made a “risky,” malarial, downright Conradian trek into the darkness of the global South. Fukunaga’s film was, as many a press release has made clear, filmed in Ghana. Less available, however, is the fact that Fukunaga shot retakes in Brazil, letting the lush landscape of that South American country stand in, however unconvincingly, for some of the environmental specificities of West Africa.

At the same time that Beasts is being positioned as “authentically” African in Western press accounts, the film’s authorized distribution pattern has effectively ignored, even actively excluded, African contexts of reception. The problem is partly structural: Netflix reportedly paid roughly $12 million for the film’s worldwide distribution rights, but the term “worldwide” refers, in this instance, only to locations where Netflix may be accessed (and where, for that matter, high-bandwidth streaming is possible in the first place). Netflix is inaccessible in Ghana, where Beasts was shot, as well as throughout West Africa. Even if it were accessible, however, local conditions of access to the Internet are such that it would be rather frustrating (to say the least) to attempt to stream bandwidth-heavy content like Fukunaga’s 137-minute film. Beasts is thus multiply distanced from the West Africa in which it was made and in whose name it claims to speak.

Significantly, West Africa is being written out of new narratives of film distribution that tout Internet access in general and Netflix penetration in particular, rendering the region a veritable blank space even as its screen depiction is central to “revolutionary” modes of dissemination. The first narrative fiction film to be released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix, the “history-making,” “epoch-defining” Beasts is presently unavailable via either platform in the very places where it was shot—in the very region that it purports to depict. Such harsh irony is painfully familiar, with deep roots in global capitalism and an obvious analog in the sort of “parachute journalism” that produces reports on the global South for the exclusive edification (and delectation) of consumers in the global North.

Not only have such African filmmakers as Aduaka, Fanta Régina Nacro, Dickson Iroegbu, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, Tade Ogidan, and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (among many others) tackled the topic of youth violence, rendering Fukunaga’s Beasts redundant at best, but some of the industrial contexts in which these directors have worked are witnessing renewed efforts to reclaim traditional spaces of exhibition for African films. Consider, for instance, the New Nollywood Cinema, a movement to produce features on celluloid and high-definition digital video for distribution to upscale multiplexes around the world. If Beasts can’t be legally streamed in a Netflix-free West Africa, then it should at least be screened in such Ghanaian and Nigerian venues as Silverbird, Ozone, and Genesis-Deluxe.

Probably by design, Beasts of No Nation has found itself at the center of debates about movie-going in the digital age, with four of the biggest theater chains in the United States boycotting the film on the basis of its immediate (rather than delayed) availability on Netflix. Partly in response to this boycott, Netflix has modified its initial narrative of abundant availability, suggesting that, in collaboration with the fledgling distribution company Bleecker Street, it is now restricting the theatrical exhibition of Beasts to a few art house cinemas in London, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, strictly to qualify the film for Oscar nominations.

While much has been made of the paltry box-office returns on Beasts, with some pundits intimating that “African” subjects are never really salable, no one in Hollywood seems willing to concede the existence, let alone the viability, of African markets for theatrically distributed feature films. Even if Silverbird, Ozone, and Genesis-Deluxe are unlikely to dramatically boost the film’s worldwide grosses, it is worth questioning the ethics of a distribution policy that, with a joint focus on Oscars and the Netflix “brand,” completely excludes Beasts of No Nation from legal consumption in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Such a lacuna powerfully symbolizes the opportunism of a film that must be pirated in order to be seen in its primary site of production—and that, in its end credits, thanks Nigerian actor-director Kunle Afolayan by misspelling his name.

Beasts of No Nation represents the latest reminder that Western constructions of “Africa” are often deployed for the sake of brand differentiation—as ways of separating the “brave” from the staid, the “bold” from the boring. Fukunaga, like Sidney Pollack with 1985’s Out of Africa, has “heroically” made his “African” film, and executives at Netflix are being similarly lionized for agreeing to distribute it. If his experience in Ghana sets Fukunaga apart from filmmakers who confine themselves to Hollywood soundstages, then it also separates Netflix from its competitors in the video-on-demand market, none of which have subsidized “African” projects.

Perhaps unintentionally, the opening shot of Beasts concretizes the very assumption that appears to be underwriting the lack of legal availability of the film in West Africa—namely, that the region is without screens on which to legitimately project Western cultural products. A discarded SANYO television set, its glass screen missing, frames our first glimpse of Fukunaga’s Africa: an impromptu football match monitored by boys who later try to sell the television set (what, with an entrepreneurial panache, they label “an imagination TV”) to a Nigerian soldier. “The Nigerians are keeping the peace,” explains Agu in voice-over. “They are always buying things, so they are easy to be selling to.” (Netflix and Bleecker Street, in doing nothing to ensure the film’s legal availability in media-literate Lagos, apparently didn’t heed Agu’s advice.) 

At first, Beasts is in potentially productive conversation with the syncretism of much of African popular culture, featuring a male character (Agu’s older brother) whose bedroom walls are covered with images of Black Americans (from Michael Jackson to Snoop Dogg), as well as a media-rich environment in which Telemundo programs compete for attention with Perry Henzell’s Jamaican film No Place Like Home. When several wandering boys encounter a disgruntled “witch woman” who, accusing them of theft, promises that their futures will be dark, the film is seemingly drawing on one of the richest Nollywood traditions, mixing juju and social realism. Such rewarding (and perhaps accidental) references to West African representational traditions disappear after only a few minutes, however—never to return. Beasts of No Nation is a purportedly African story made in a conspicuously American style, with a brief average shot length, slow-motion interludes, and the ostentatious shakiness of handheld camerawork (which plainly replicates the iconography of Western “eyewitness” reporting).

Beasts is, like Blood Diamond (2006) and The Last King of Scotland (2006) before it, the type of film that seemingly satisfies so many requirements of the Western imagination, including through the off-screen mobilization of Fukunaga’s personal, adventurist narrative. The experience of making Beasts gave the director a chance to boast about having contracted malaria on the African continent, presumably after foolishly refusing the antimalarial pills that must have been abundantly available to him. In published interviews (such as one with Rolling Stone, tellingly titled “How ‘Beasts of No Nation’ Almost Killed Cary Fukunaga”), the filmmaker suggests that his bout with malaria provided an unexpected creative boost—a chance to finally sit still and tweak his “African” screenplay. That there are hundreds of millions of global malaria sufferers for whom the disease is decidedly not a source of pride is apparently lost on Fukunaga, who, with Netflix’s help, is ensuring that Beasts of No Nation is intelligible only as a familiar Western fantasy.

Further Reading