By Peter Roslovich
With the 88th Academy Awards embroiled in controversy over their exclusion of non-white actors in the nominations, it seems to be Beasts Of No Nation that is on everybody’s tongue as the vital exclusion. Beasts of No Nation is said to have been excluded for two reasons: it features an all-black cast, and it is one of the first mainstream films to be released on a digital platform (something that the film industry and large theater companies are very worried about). However, looking past the controversy, how does the film stand on its own?
The film follows the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young West African boy who gets involved in his country’s civil war after joining a rebel military battalion headed by the powerful Commandant (Idris Elba). Most of the film follows Agu’s increasing role in the battalion, the loss of his innocence, and his relationship with the Commandant. Now, the reason why Agu is no more specific than an “ West African Boy” is because the film itself never reveals what country it takes place in, and this is part of what makes the film so great and different. Unlike, many other Hollywood films that take place in Africa, Beasts of No Nation does not revel in showing the terrible conditions of West Africa and how bad of a place it is, one that is filled with savages. No, Beasts Of No Nation is a war film that does not clearly indicate whether one side is good or bad; it shows a destructive, confusing, manipulative war that consumes all who partake in it, and it is not one that is automatically twenty times worse just because it takes place in West Africa.
Abraham Attah does a great job as Agu especially for a child actor. He successfully shows the transformation of Agu from an innocent child to a hardened soldier. However, the real crime was not nominating Idris Elba for an Academy Award. His performance is one of the best of the year, and he dominates this film. From the first time on the screen, he creates a fearsome, yet father-like role. He is willing to do the worst things to his enemy, sometimes killing entire villages, but still he shows so much love to Agu and the rest of his troops (for the most part). His presence at times is almost like a cult-leader, forcing his troops to shout chants at him. However, at no point in the movie does it seem like he thinks what he is doing is wrong. He expresses how much he wishes his troops to live in a better world and that they will live in a better world when it is all over. In fact, hope is one of the elements that truly sets this film apart from many other war films. Things always seem to be getting worse and worse, but at the same time Agu and the Commandant hold hope that one day things can get better. Without giving anything away, this holds true until the end of film, where time is not spent lingering on the destruction of the past, but the hope of the future. One final thing that really helps the performances is that the actors speak in a broken english that is similar in structure to the African language: Twi. It really helps create a sense of immersion in that they don’t speak perfect English, but the audience can still understand them.
The cinematography and shot composition also create a very beautiful, but deadly environment. Many of the shots contain juxtaposition between the bright colors that are found in the jungle and atrocious acts of war. It corresponds very well with Agu’s loss of innocence and makes every scene something you want to look at and look away from.
Conclusion: Boasting one of the greatest performances of the year, Beasts of No Nation is an original, thought-provoking anti-war movie, that is oddly optimistic.