Beasts of No Nation: A Eurocentric Tale of the Contemporary African Cannibal

 

Beasts of No Nation,  a film by Cary Joji Fukunaga (director of HBO’s True Detective), has received an overwhelming amount of critical acclaim, earning the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival, and has prompted many to suggest that Idris Elba is one of many actors of colour who have been overlooked during the #OscarsSoWhite2016 controversy.  It is for good reason that the film has been so well received.  It has a stellar cast, including an exceptional performance from Abraham Attah, and it shares a compelling and moving narrative about African child soldiers.  However, there are some concerning elements with regard to issues of perceived race and how racialized groups are portrayed in the film.  In his monograph Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon expresses concern about the image of the ‘cannibalistic African’, and the ways in which that image has reinforced stereotypes of African people as animalistic.  Though Fukunaga seems to be making a genuine attempt to raise awareness about an important social issue, and though he does not seem to be intentionally promoting negative stereotypes of Africans, the film ultimately ends up portraying Africans in a contemporized cannibalistic archetype, and though there is no eating of human flesh, the film does portray Africans as the source of their own conflict without looking at the broader context.

 

Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation.

Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation.

The film follows the journey of a boy named Agu (Attah) as he navigates the violence of his native country, and unnamed African state, but the only antagonists present in the film are fellow Africans.  When Agu’s town hosts a conflict between government and rebel forces, Agu sees his father summarily executed, and his brother shot shortly thereafter.  The issue is that it is fellow Africans who do the shooting, and none seem to have any concern for their brethren.  When Agu is discovered by the NDF, another military faction, he is adopted, only to be raped by the Commandant (Elba).  When the narrative follows the command chain, it becomes clear that the NDF is run by a Black leader.  The problem with this is not that it isn’t reflective of that actual conflicts going on in Africa.  Indeed, much of the violence is the result of civil conflict, and so, as was the case with the American Civil War, brother is fighting brother in a figurative sense.  The issue, though, is that there is no context.  The result is that it appears that Blacks are killing Blacks, and don’t seem to be able to govern themselves, but what we don’t see is that these conflicts are often the result of conflicts created by the colonization of the region.  The viewer does not, for instance, see that the structure and culture that once existed in Africa had been wiped out, and that the tribal values and histories were erased and replaced with Western values.  All the audience sees is the current conflict, and not the chain of events that led up to it.  In regions like Algeria, for instance, there have been military conflicts for decades, and though many of these conflicts could be categorized as ‘black-on-black’, that would fail to consider the manner in which French colonizers destroyed any semblance of structure in the region during colonization, and how it is the French who have destabilized the region.  This is akin to watching two boxers in a ring and assuming the conflict is between them, without realizing that the organizers have set the stage for the conflict.

 

 

Idris elba, in Beasts of No Nation.

Idris elba, in Beasts of No Nation.

There are some allusions to outside interests dictating the direction of the conflict, but even this is centered on racialized groups.  When the Commandant takes his troop to meet his superior officer, he finds himself waiting in a room with what appears to be an Asian business man carrying a briefcase.  The inference to be drawn seems to be that outside/international business interests are shaping the conflict and that, rather than fighting for liberty, the NDF is fighting for profit.  This further reinforces negative stereotypes regarding Africans, but also frames Asian business interests as an influential factor.  It is true that many technological devices made in Asian (and elsewhere) require materials from conflict zones, and where people were once concerned about ‘blood diamonds’, many are now concerned about ‘blood cell phones’.  However, this presentation doesn’t address the full context. The Asian businessman may very likely be there to arrange a deal to secure conflict resources, but it is just as likely that the product he is making will be consumed in the West, be it in America, or in European countries.  Thus, it is the West, and not Asia, that is the source of the conflict. Again, however, the film portrays racialized groups as the source of the conflict without providing the full context.

 

Actors Elba and Attah, and director Fukunaga.

Actors Elba and Attah, and director Fukunaga.

As to the film’s heroes, though there are few white people in the film, the implication does seem to be that white people are the heroes of the film.  It is true that Agu’s father is a responsible leader, but so too is he inept.  The choices he makes fracture his his community, and hi family, gets both himself and his eldest son killed, and leaves another of his sons to be raped and recruited into an army.  In the film’s final sequences, it is an African teacher who is assisting Agu, but it is under the funding of the UN, which is dominated by Western (read white) influences.  Agu himself is a heroic figure in an existentialist sense as he is able to push himself onto the right path, but it is the UN and a predominantly Caucasian force that is seen as the heroes.  When the NDF’s leader scales back on his brutal military campaign, it is to appease the UN and the international community.  When the Commandant’s troops reject him, it is to the UN that they go to surrender and get help. In this way, the film positions Black people as a kind of damsel in distress and frames the West/UN as the heroes.  This may be an unfair assessment, as there are few Caucasians in the film, but the looming authority of the UN is central to the film’s plot, and as such the film suggests that Africa needs an outside authority to bring peace and structure to a people who are unable to govern themselves.

 

Blood diamondIn this way, Beats of No Nation falls into the trap that many other, more Eurocentric (read Caucasian) films fall into.  In the film Blood Diamond, for example, Solomon (Djimon Hounsou), a Black man, is faced with a conflict, and it is Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white man, and Maddy Bowen (Jenifer Connelly), a white woman, that rescue him.  Though he is brave, strong, intelligent, and resourceful, Solomon in incapable of rescuing himself, and must rely on the assistance of white people.  Likewise, in Beyond Borders, people of colour all around the world are in need of resources, and it is Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie) and Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), a white woman and a white man, who display an unwavering sense of altruism and self-sacrifice to make the world a better place for people of colour.  Though the masses of racialized people who are marginalized could use their collective power to overcome their oppressors, the film, perhaps inadvertently, suggests white people are their only salvation.  It seems that in Hollywood, the only films about Black people that can get a green light, are ones where Caucasians play the hero.  Beasts of No Nation deserves credit for at least removing the Eurocentric leading actors from the film, but the Eurocentric perspective remains entrenched throughout the film as the African leadership is portrayed as existing in a state of perpetual chaos, and outside European forces are required to bring order to the region, even in the absence of Caucasian characters.

 

 

Hotel Rwanda 1There are a number of films who have addressed social issues on the African continent without letting a Eurocentric view usurp the spirit of the film.  Hotel Rwanda, for example, details a perspective of the Rwandan genocide.  Though it would have been easy to frame this conflict as ‘black-on-black’ crime given the two factions involved (the Tutsi and the Hutu) could both be categorized as ‘Black’ from a Eurocentric perspective, the film is careful not to frame it as such.  When, for example, reporter Jack Daglish (Joaquin Phoenix) asks about the conflict, it is taken back to its colonial roots, and so framed as an extension of a European conflict, not as a strictly African one.  As to the film’s heroes, none of them are white.  The film’s protagonist, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), for instance, is excited that Daglish will be reporting on the conflict, but Daglish asserts that people in the West will do nothing but offer sympathy from their dinner table before returning to their meals. Likewise, though Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), a UN military leader, does provide some support, he is critical of the West’s view of African.  The film’s hero is not Daglish or Oliver, but Rusesabagina.  Rather than having a Caucasian protagonist carry the film, Hotel Rwanda offers an African lead, much as Beasts of No Nation does, but also frames Africans as the people who are best able to resolve their own conflicts.  Alternately, The Constant Gardener, which does provide a Eurocentric protagonist in Justin Quail (Ralph Fiennes) does not frame the West as Africa’s saviours.  Instead, it is Western pharmaceuticals that are creating conflict in Africa, and though it is a Caucasian protagonist who ultimately serves as hero, his work is only an extension of a joint effort between his wife, a Caucasian woman, and her colleague, an African man.  In this sense, the West is perceived as the antagonist, and the resolution is achieved through the extension of a joint effort between a native African, and a European woman.  Beasts of No Nation certainly deserves credit for creating a cast that doesn’t yield to the Eurocentrism that is typically expected in such films, but it does not do much in the way of challenging Eurocentric views of Africa, and in fact, can be seen as reinforcing them in many respects.

 

beasts-of-no-nationDespite these criticisms, Beasts of No Nation is still an admirable accomplishment in filmmaking.  It is a compelling story, expertly produced, and proficiently cast.  Though it is Elba and Attah who are getting most of the praise, the film’s entire cast is stellar.  The film also draws attention to important social issues like child soldiering.  That said, there remains grave concerns that the film does not provide enough context to the conflict, and as such it could reinforce stereotypes about Africans and the African continent.  The film fails to offer any insight into the colonial roots of this conflict, nor does it speak to the religious extremism and economic factors that have exacerbated civil conflicts in various nations on the African continent.  Though a film that is worth watching, it is one that must be tempered with an understanding of the broader social context that has created the tragic phenomenon of civil unrest and child soldiering that has been plaguing many African nations.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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