Netflix film ‘Beasts of No Nation’ a strong debut

Morgan Engels, Staff Writer

Back in October, Netflix, already having made a mark in television with shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” debuted its first original film “Beasts of No Nation.” While watching the film I was reminded of a quote by the late Roger Ebert where he describes movies as a “machine that generate empathy.”

The film stars Abraham Attah, whose character, Agu, suffers the real life atrocities children face across much of continental Africa. Like many of the performers in the film, Attah is a non-actor and native of Ghana. The effect of his casting, coupled with his talent is an authentic, powerful and heartbreaking performance.

When we first meet Agu, he is living with his friends and family in a “Buffer Zone,” located in an unnamed African nation facing the outbreak of a civil war. Agu and his friends put on shows for others with an “imagination TV,” the hollowed shell of a television, which is poignantly used to introduce and the draw the viewer into the film.

Agu’s peaceful life is soon interrupted when government forces encroach on their village and he if forced to flee. Alone and fighting for survival he comes under the control of the leader of a child mercenary army, known only as Commandant, played by Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther).

Elba delivers a captivating and complex performance that is equal parts despicable and sympathetic, and stands as one the film’s standout features. Elba, as Commandant, leads Agu and his fellow soldiers on a journey into hell on earth and madness. While Agu provides a window into the world through his spiritual struggles and fight for humanity, Commandant is the key to understanding it.

Many films have tackled the same subject matter, often politicizing and/or singling out heroic tales the results have often been “issue films.” “Beasts of No Nation” is instead a human story working to deliver a heavy dose of empathy and understanding. It paints in striking and intimate detail the emotional and spiritual toll Agu’s journey takes on him, and took on those who preceded him.

Meanwhile both the world the film inhabits and the conflicts that exist within it are painted in broad strokes. This is done in part, because the film is told from child’s perspective. Consequently, it reminds the audience that such atrocities, for which no reason could do justice in explaining, are not limited to one nation and are without a sense of order.

“Beasts of No Nation” comes from writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective” season-one), based on the 2005 book, by Uzodinma Iweala. With Oscar season now upon us, the film is sure to garner award talks, with Attah and Elba standing as near locks for acting nominations. Coupled with the film’s somewhat controversial release, such award considerations present a remarkable turning point in cinema.


The film premiered simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix, much to the disdain of theater owners. Since its beginning Netflix has offered customers a source for small, independent films. Meanwhile, larger theater chains have dominated the market for decades, pandering almost exclusively to large studio, mainstream fare. In more recent years Netflix has begun developing an avenue for consumers to receive a quality of television once reserved only for those who could afford premium cable networks, like HBO. Such moves have even made it both reasonable and possible for major studios to handle their properties in a manner that would have once to far limited its audience, as seen in Marvel’s “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones.” Now, with “Beasts of No Nation” the steaming service promises, through its accessibility and affordability a more democratized means to consume quality film and television.