I am not moving and the leader man is throwing up his arm to the sky. He is shouting, where are you finding him, so hard that his voice is becoming high and sounding like it is sticking in his throat. Strika is pointing his arm at the shack. Is that right, the man is saying and shaking his head like he cannot be believing it at all at all. SSSSS! He is shouting, you. Where is Luftenant? Luftenant! And another voice is answering, he is in the bush.
Two films vividly depict a story of unimaginable horror from a child’s point of view. One is Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, and the other is Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Both films are about victims of violence, of being taken to be used and destroyed from the outside in. They depart in significant ways, as Room is really about the ways a child can be protected from horror if he has his mother there. Fukunaga’s Agu has no such form of protection, but is thrust into a nightmare that will work him, Job like, until his soul is saved or damned.
Make no mistake, no indifferent God has anything to do with the battle for Agu’s soul. It is his own humanity he will either keep or lose. Critics of the film have make the tragic mistake of needing Beasts of No Nation to be “a film about Africa.” In so doing, it suddenly becomes a checklist for political correctness, its identity as true art long forgotten. What country, they ask? Why is Africa always portrayed in a negative light for white audiences? Why can’t we see good Africa?
Plenty of films about “good Africa” are made every year but go ignored by the film community. That is what needs to be fixed, not the tearing down of one of the year’s most ambitious film. If the subtext of True Detective was the hideous underlayer of slavery the opposite is true in Beasts of No Nation. The outer layer is corruption, driven by the usual sins of mankind: greed, thirst for power, subjugation to acquire that power. Underneath lies the beauty of a forgotten land. Africans are the original homo sapiens, our oldest ancestors, the initial form of our species from which we’ve all sprung. This is the birthplace of civilization, for better or worse. Fukanaga’s work is never concerned with the specifics but with broader themes, probably somewhat open to interpretation.
If the idea of a monster is to rob a person of their inherent humanity, Agu’s struggle to survive requires that he lose his humanity, along with his hunger pangs, his attachment to others, his morality, his knowledge of right and wrong. It is a slow pulling, and you might say the ultimate tragedy. Fukunaga takes us places no other film would dare travel – where you see ghosts of people you loved. Indeed, this is not meant to speak for all of Africa or even for Africans. This goes straight to the heart of humankind worldwide. Perhaps we aren’t yet ready to see this film and the characters in it as pure metaphor. Perhaps we still need to categorize them as representations of a forgotten minority. That’s understandable, considering. It is too facile a way of looking at this film, however.
That Beasts of No Nation (both the book and the film) remain stubbornly unspecific about the location, or the war, or the enemy is because they are told from the pure perspective of a child. A child sees things plainly, without context, without the thirst for power yet or the desire to rise in the ranks but just to survive, to remember what it was to love and to laugh, to be in a family getting punished like a regular kid. This is the reason we don’t need to know where Agu is. Perhaps it’s our own need to take a side, to put our emotions in the right folder that motivates us to search for a cause.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if Beasts of No Nation was about a white kid in a nameless war who goes through the same challenges as Agu, whether it would be easier to abandon that need for cause and blame. I suspect not only would it be so, but it would be easier to absorb than this film, which must also carry the burdens of real life, real history and real Africa.
What little things Agu hangs onto – his friendship with Strika, his memory of his mother, his ability to laugh — are also stolen from him. The beauty of Beasts of No Nation, however, is that something in Agu makes him hold on anyway. Something makes him reach for the cool water of the sea. Something makes him want to laugh and play with other children, to feel as human as possible, even if others see him as a monster.
It is complicated to love this movie if you’re a white person because you are expected to do everything right in your admiration now, to be on the right side of politics, always, above all other things. This is true of almost any film starring black characters or women or any oppressed minority. Films about any minority group must then carry the burden of righting the past, of fixing in art what can’t be, or hasn’t been fixed in life.
Beasts of No Nation is one of, if not the best, film of 2015. It belongs on the same shelf as Apocalypse Now – a film that is wildly and freely serves as a metaphor to war. It is Agu’s plight, as he delivers in plain spoken and heartbreaking monologue that he, too, like Martin Sheen, like Marlon Brando is fighting to hold on to everything that makes him human.
Cary Fukunaga is the most promising director working in Hollywood. He is uncompromising, and maybe that makes him threatening. He is that rare artist who seems to care more about the work than does about financial rewards or commercial success. Some in Hollywood would chuckle and say “that’s for sure.” Every studio passed on Beasts of No Nation. When it hit Netflix no one went to see it in theaters because why would they? It’s not really a movie you watch to chill or be entertained. It is a movie to watch if you want to experience that all too often absent thing that great art can inspire: to take you somewhere you’ve never been, to make you slightly uncomfortable, to shift the way you see the world and your place in it.
It’s hard to know what fate awaits Beasts of No Nation in terms of the Oscar race. it probably has too many hurdles to jump. Perhaps its fate awaits on town the road, with fresher minds.
One of the most moving scenes in Beasts of No Nation comes near the end. Just as the war boys leave their commandant once the food begins to run out and the magic never appears, the rescued war boys still seek to find something bigger, better and beyond the refugee center. Agu has that choice, too. He can run off in the middle of the night and sift through his limited options – or he can stay and wait for the seed of goodness to grow and bring him back from the brink. He chooses to stay – to make a run for the waves instead. What waits for him is an ocean of opportunity, not a dead end as Truffaut’s lost boy finds at the end of 400 Boys. The ocean and the boys playing in the waves is a better way out for Agu, a chance to remember to forget.