It’s Oscar night, and this year has more controversy swirling around the awards than usual. All of the nominees are white. It has prompted a boycott and a campaign to overhaul the voting process and the Academy’s membership. This post isn’t about that controversy, but it is about one of the movies that was noticeably snubbed this year: Beasts of No Nation. It’s not a movie for everyone. It’s one of those monumentally depressing movies you see because you feel you have to, not because you really want to. But it’s still an important and worthwhile movie that touches on a tough subject.
Beasts of No Nation follows Agu, a preteen boy in an African village. He lives a hard life, pretending a hollow TV is real and rustling up some money by blocking a road and shaking down the drivers. We see his country has had some civil turmoil, since Nigerian soldiers are occupying the village. But no one is prepared for the storm that bursts when rebels overrun the village, sending civilians fleeing in panic. Agu’s mother and sister manage to take a bus out in time, but the rest of his family are captured and killed by the rebels. Agu barely manages to escape into the hills.
There he’s caught by the rebels and their intimidating commandant. You might think Agu’s time is up, but no, instead the commandant sees potential in him. The commandant’s army is mostly made up of boys, orphaned or separated from their families and trained to be merciless and almost unthinking killers. Through a combination of strict training, military discipline, swaggering charisma, and a lack of other options, Agu joins the rebel army and becomes a hardened soldier.
We see the usual atrocities associated with African wars: massacres of innocent civilians, gang-rapes, rampant plundering, sadistic execution of prisoners through grenades in their mouths. Agu gets a little too close to the commandant. Besides the catharsis of sex and destruction, the boy soldiers are placated by the camaraderie of combat and some kind of drug. We also see a glimpse of the politics swirling in the background of the conflict: the commandant is summoned to rebel HQ by the Supreme Leader, but the leader keeps him at a distance, seemingly unnerved by the commandant’s success and popularity among his men. Instead, the leader gives priority to the Chinese businessman who has no qualms about meeting with a war criminal. (Whites aren’t really part of the narrative, by the way — we briefly glimpse some white faces through the windows of a UN van, and that’s it.)
As I wrote before, this story is not for everyone. Some viewers might just see it as another tale of tragedy and horror filmed to wring easy tears from a guilty audience. But it’s essential for getting an idea for how the phenomenon of child soldiery works. We get to see the story from Agu’s point of view. Yes, he does horrible things and commits crimes he should be way too young to be part of. But can we really blame him? What other choice does he have? He is surrounded by armed boys deep in the jungle, his family far away or murdered. For him it’s kill or be killed. We see he doesn’t really want to slaughter innocent people — he even knows what that must feel like — but it’s him or them. And if your country has fallen apart in civil war, why not join one of the armies and at least have a fighting chance of surviving?
That is not to say that Beasts doesn’t have its problematic aspects. An article in the Huffington Post points out that although, following the source novel, it doesn’t specify any African country in particular, it was filmed in Ghana, and the actors are Asante. Ghana is one of Africa’s success stories, with a peaceful history and no record of child soldiery. (The original novel was inspired primarily by Nigeria’s civil war; Cary Fukunaga, the director, mostly researched the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.) Non-Africans wouldn’t know the difference, of course, but imagine watching a movie about World War II with actors speaking Swedish. Professor Noah Tsika complains that the movie’s distribution on Netflix keeps it pretty much locked out of West Africa, and reminds us that it’s only one of a series of books and movies about the subject of child soldiers.
Perhaps most of all, Africans and those with an interest in Africa tend to get annoyed by movies like Beasts because it perpetuates a tired, deeply unflattering image of Africa as hopelessly corrupt, poor, violent, chaotic, and in need of help. Many of Africa’s worst stories are in the past, and the continent in general is trying hard to put frenzied wars like the ones seen here behind it. Countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Mozambique are moving forward and healing the rifts torn upon bloodily in past decades. And it’s true that Africa’s vibrant film industry is almost unknown overseas, with the result that normal stories about Africa are ignored in favor of traumatic, gut-wrenchingly bleak ones. But it’s also true that some parts of Africa are still mired in conflict and war crimes — including, interestingly, Nigeria (hey, it’s a big country). Child soldiers continue to get drafted into mass killings today in South Sudan and Somalia (and, outside of Africa, in Syria and Yemen too). Boko Haram’s mass kidnappings and the ethnic bloodshed in the Central African Republic are very recent memories.
In any case, Beasts of No Nation is worth watching just because of what it illuminates of the human experience, aside from any political or racial questions. (Do we snub movies like Schindler’s List because Germany doesn’t slaughter Jews anymore?) As the title suggests, this isn’t about 1 country in particular, or even a continent. It’s about what happens to humans, even young ones, when they are put into an extreme situation with bleak options, although one allows them to survive and thrive. It’s about what happens to societies when corruption and ill governance lead to a complete breakdown in government authority and cocky warlords take matters into their own hands. And it’s also, thankfully, about the potential for human redemption and rehabilitation. Despite the agonies that Agu goes through (and inflicts), I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a tone of hope that forgiveness and patience can save even the most seemingly hopeless cases.
Beasts of No Nation is not easy viewing. It’s understandable if its subject matter makes you pass it up or if the political context makes you uncomfortable. But it’s a vital story that tells an important part of the African experience, and I think it’s well worth taking on.