Civil war in African countries is something that is still happening in the present, and has been covered so much through the news or even depicted into art such as film. Yet most Hollywood films, even in the most accurate portrayals, shamelessly used the hidden agenda of the white savior trope as propaganda of American patriotism and influence, such as Edward Zwick’s ‘Blood Diamond’ (2006) and Antonie Fuqua’s ‘Tears of The Sun’ (2003). Not ‘Beast of No Nation’ (2015) though, where writer-director (and surprisingly cinematographer) Cary Joji Fukunaga depicts through the eye of Agu, a child fighting in the civil war of an unspecified West African country.
The film opens with a light, joyous tone amidst its background setting, with Agu playing with other kids and enjoying time with his family, just like any other children. Some of these moments break into comedy, making our main character more engaging with his cheerful personality. Although adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel ‘Beast of No Nation’ (2005), Fukunaga’s screenwriting could be compared to the rising industry of Korean cinema where the light to heavy tone shifts are noticeable–case in point, the government military starting to raid their village. But these sudden shifts are presented in a logical way, strengthening an establishment to be one with Agu, as an upcoming hard-hitting psychological transformation journey will change his life forever.
Instead of showcasing Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1999) or Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ (2016) brutal, horrifying, and gory war, ‘Beast of No Nation’ represents the on-screen violence on minimal (although it can be brutal at some point). However, the film’s point-of-view of war is more devastating, as these children are not the victim through innocence, but victim through force participation. Fukunaga’s direction (and camera shots) focuses more on the soldiers’ diverting morale, giving no mercy of explicit use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. ALL INVOLVING CHILDREN! Fukunaga’s visual style also drove off from the usual war genre, especially scenes involving change of color palette and jumpy, montages of action. Some audiences would find these unconventional techniques irritating, but there’s no denying that it is effective at some point. Tears are shed when, backed up by the use of sorrowful soundtrack, audiences see children killing their own kind with a smile on their faces.
Making his debut in this film, Abraham Attah’s performance is surprisingly compelling for a boy who never participated in war itself. All of Agu’s crises in morality, faith, and identity are carried consistently throughout the film, making it top-notch considering that the focus is on the character. Idris Elba also acted out of his zone, portraying a feared yet charismatic Commandant who took a liking to Agu. The way he spoke made Commandant different from most leaders who would kill these soldiers upon making mistakes. He’s certainly almost a scene-stealer from Attah’s performance. It felt like these two were robbed out of Oscar nominations, but considering the politics of streaming and cinema at that time it made sense that it didn’t even get past the voting. It’s a shame though as these two actors are what made ‘Beast of No Nation’ one of the most harrowing, bleakest, heartbreaking war films of all time.
Even if ‘Beast of No Nation’ might not accurately depict the child-soldier situation in West Africa, it certainly conveys its emotion right through Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction and screenwriting, supported by Abraham Attah and Idris Elba oscar-worthy performance. Hoping to see more on how Fukunaga would transform James Bond in ‘No Time to Die’ (2021)