Alright, I’m going to go on a bit of political rant here, so if you are NOT a supporter of OscarsSoWhite (I am firmly on record AS a supporter)…let me present exhibit #1. Because I’ll tell you this: if someone like Sean Penn or Matthew McConaughey played the Commandant role in the fine “Beasts of No Nation”, by the talented Cary Fukunaga (I adored his 2011 “Jane Eyre”), I GUARANTEE you, they would’ve been nominated for an Oscar. The part is that good, so it’s very well-suited for a gifted actor to take that ball and run with it. Idris Elba IS an incredibly gifted actor…who was somehow ignored by the Academy. It shouldn’t have happened that way. And a strong case can be made for young Abraham Attah being nomination-worthy too. But neither of them received one, while previous winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale did. Yeah…OscarsSoWhite is so damn right.
There is a brutal civil war breaking out in a West African country, and poor young Agu (an incredible Mr. Attah) is swept up in its wake. Attempting to escape his war torn village, with his father and older brother, the preteen Agu is the only survivor of the trio–as his dad and sibling are slaughtered by the rebel forces. Undetected in the jungle for a time, Agu happens across a battalion ruled by the charismatic “Commandant” (the marvelous Mr. Elba). They consider killing Agu, but Commandant decides to take Agu under his wing, and trains him to be amongst his other child soldiers. Over time, after a nasty initiation process, the once innocent Agu morphs into a vicious member of the militia. In fact, Commandant becomes a father figure to him..but slowly the cracks and contradictions seep through Commandant’s benevolent facade. It eventually leads to a betrayal…that just may lead to a better life.
Mr. Fukunaga also penned the screenplay for “Beast of No Nation”, based on the Uzodinma Iweala book of the same name. He also served as the film’s cinematographer. Now, I’m not certain if it’s Cary’s undeniable polish and panache that keeps the film from reaching “great” status, or the pre-occupation with the two stars. Maybe it’s a combination–or maybe I’ve become a bit immune to this level of brutality by now. Make no mistake, however, it’s a consistently compelling story, and a strong motion picture. It was produced by Netflix, and had a limited run in theaters after being lauded at the Venice International Film Festival. Its quality should not be masked by the controversy of its omission from the Oscar hunt. Both Attah and Elba received multiple awards from other organizations during the season. Here’s hoping that Oscar decides to shine on both in the very near future.