Netflix might be making history with its first feature film, "Beasts of No Nation."
The Cary Fukunaga-directed drama about a young West African boy who finds himself a child soldier in a war, has been making the rounds on the festival circuit to critical acclaim. This past week, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to raucous applause, generating even more Oscar buzz than it already had.
The film is a masterfully-executed onscreen portrayal of the child soldier narrative. Fukunaga's direction and writing, coupled with stellar, heartbreaking performances by Idris Elba and child actor Abraham Attah (winner of the Best Young Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival), have resulted in a movie as beautiful as it is brutal to watch. As director and DOP Fukunaga uses the visual flourishes that made his first season of "True Detective" so breathtaking -- his use of violence is merciless, but deliberate.
As a piece of filmmaking standing on its own, "Beasts of No Nation" is an exciting example of how streaming services like Netflix have an opportunity to develop content no one has ever seen before. And yet, does the skill and passion that clearly went into the film erase its place in a media landscape that consistently shines a spotlight on stories of African misery? Yes, it is a gorgeous film -- but so what? Is it really doing or saying anything we haven't seen before?
It's a question that, as an African, as a Ghanaian, I found myself pondering over and over again during a recent screening of the film at TIFF. As I watched young Agu descend into a world of more and more depravity, I couldn't help but feel that this film was reintroducing a narrative that I have seen and heard too many times before. The opening of the movie had a jarring effect -- as it established the young character of Agu, his family, and his quickly destabilizing world, I recognized the sound of my language, Twi, being spoken, and recognized the food and music so synonymous with my life back home.
This is part of the subtle, seemingly harmless ways that the African narrative has been built and delivered to the rest of the world. "Beasts of No Nation" was filmed primarily in Ghana, and had a mostly local Ghanaian cast and crew. It uses Ghanaian language and culture to create Agu's world before he's thrust into horror. But like the book it's based on, it's set in a nameless African country (the only African country mentioned in the film is Nigeria).
The trope of the unnamed African country is found throughout fiction, in both movies and literature, and sometimes can be used as a powerful tool for allegory and political commentary, as in Chinua Achebe's "A Man of the People." "Beasts of No Nation" is based on a novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala who uses his knowledge of Nigerian culture and language as the basis for the story of Agu. The novel is representative of an idea, of a potential rather than inevitable reality.
But in film, there's a removal of this context, in a story where context is everything. The political history of Ghana has not been perfect or unblemished, but there has, to date, never been the kind of rebel warfare and child soldiers depicted in this film.What was jarring, unsettling, was the use of Ghana as the stand-in for this kind of narrative. The film actively erased a real history for the sake of plot.
Just because this film is based on the work of an African doesn't negate its harmful implications. It promotes this idea of Africa as a monolith, as a site of misery and pain so widespread that it doesn't matter where in Africa the story is actually taking place.
There have been many films in the last several years that highlight the child soldier and African war narrative -- documentaries like "Soldier Child," "War Dance," and "Invisible Children," and narratives like "Johnny Mad Dog" and "War Witch" (filmed in the Congo, set in another nameless African country). These films obviously have the potential to educate and spread awareness. But they have the equal potential of perpetuating a single story about Africa.
During a 2009 TEDTalk, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of "a single story," recalling a time as a student when a white roommate, upon learning she was Nigerian, was shocked that she could speak English, or even use a stove. "What struck me was this," Adichie explained, "She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity."
It's that sort of well-meaning pity that the film's narrative sustains. Like so many movies centered on African misery, "Beasts of No Nation" exquisitely takes the most gruesome and horrifying elements of war and turns them into a kind of visual poetry. It endears us to our protagonist by making his suffering a cathartic kind of entertainment. And by the end of it all, we're supposed to walk away feeling somehow more aware, more human.
But the issue with revisiting these narratives of African pain over and over again is that they have, in a way, become the only way that the media seems willing or able to digest the African identity or experience. Why is it that whenever a movie about Africa gets Oscar-buzz or makes it on an international level, it almost always is directed and produced by non-Africans, and about war, disease, or corruption? Is that really all Africa has to offer? Or is that all anybody wants to see?
There's never the same level of interest in African tales of romance, or comedy, or human drama not predicated on political strife. That isn't to say that movies like "Beasts of No Nation" are unimportant -- this isn't about only presenting sanitized, censored, depictions of African identity. Fukunaga's use of his source material is as good as it gets. There are, thankfully, no white savior characters in the film, and it's gratifying that so many local actors and artists were a part of this production. But that doesn't change the fact that African trauma has become a kind of international entertainment. It's a problem that, in the climate of buzzwords like "representation" and "diversity" no one is really talking about. Perhaps it's time that we started.
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