Beasts of No Nation will probably be mainly remembered for being the first film Netflix released. It’s a shame, because while that was a watershed moment in the film industry and how films are released to the public, Beasts of No Nation is a much better film than that. It remains one of the very best films Netflix has released or probably ever will release. It was also the first project from Cary Joji Fukunaga, who had just changed the landscape of cinematic television with the first (and in my mind, the only season) of True Detective, but for dumb reasons the film languished in my Netflix queue without being watched until I was sent a screener of the Criterion disc.
If you had to do an elevator pitch, you would probably describe the film as “Come & See meets City of God,” which is a decent description of the story. In a truly stunning debut film performance, Abraham Attah plays Agu, a child in a unnamed African country. Agu’s father buys passage for his wife and his two younger children when the country descends into civil war. The father, Agu and his younger brother stay behind. Soon government forces round up the remaining men and execute the majority of them, but Agu escapes into the jungle. He eventually is inducted into a ragtag battalion of mainly child soldiers led by the Commandant, played by a brilliant Idris Elba.
The film is an uncompromising view at war, and specifically the use of child soldiers. There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers right now, 40% of those are young girls who are held by militias as sex slaves, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual number is closer to a million at minimum. The film is graphic at times, but it’s never gratuitous and feels authentic, Fukunaga, who is a half-Japanese half-Swedish American director, is asked about making what is a very African film whilst being what passes as a “white director.” He simply says that it was a interesting story that he wanted to tell, but that in these circumstances you must do your research on the topic so that you know the world inside and out. Before he discovered the source novel from Uzodinma Iweala, Fukunaga was already researching child soldiers in Sierra Leone for a possible future project. The events in Beasts of No Nation are loosely based on various conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria over the decades.
Fukunaga brilliantly doesn’t fall into trap of doing any kind of “white saviour” narrative. There are almost no white faces on screen at all, just some white photojournalists in the background of a few scenes near the start, documenting the country falling into civil war. The cast is mainly Ghanaian, simply because that’s where they shot the film for logistical reasons, and on top of that they cast some actual former child soldiers. Idris Elba and Ama K. Abebrese (who plays the boy’s mother) are the only actors they flew in. Elba is pitch-perfect casting, because you need somebody with that level of charisma so you can buy why these kids stick around after he does truly evil things to them.
Beasts of No Nation is a perfect example of a director who uses his leverage after a big success like True Detective to make his passion project, but it has something important to say, and isn’t indulgent either. Fukunaga accomplishes a balancing act with the style of the film (he also shot the film after the original cinematographer broke his arm) by using some poetic stylisation but never losing track of the reality of the story. Come & See does this similarly, but that film does push itself more into the surreal at times. Unlike Come & See, Beasts of No Nation does have a glimmer of hope at the end. That might be the American in Fukunaga, but it’s deserved, and not unbelievable in the context of the story.
The release from Criterion, which so far has been the main distributor of Netflix original films, is a solid package. The extras include an audio commentary with Fukunaga and first assistant director Jon Mallard, a hour-long-plus documentary that includes interviews with most of the cast and crew, a conversation between Fukunaga and film and television producer/cultural commentator Franklin Leonard, an interview with costume designer Jenny Eagan, and the film’s trailer. The booklet includes an essay by film critic Robert Daniels.