Netflix’s Beast of no Nation, a paradigm shift in the movie consuming experience and an expectantly poignant and visually imposing film, delves into a warring West African combat zone. Agu, a child who many West Africans can identify with, loses his innocence as war severs his family, childhood, and psychological well-being. Forced into becoming a soldier of civil war, his story reminds the audience that war is more than a fleeting, physical conflict. The film explores the effects of the loss of innocence, connects the ideas of change and survival and, ultimately, reminds the audience it was no coincidence that Netflix’s first premiere movie release was a film about war.
War pervades the psyche because it is long-suffering, engulfs innocence and forms an imprint in the minds of its survivors. In the film, Agu, played by Abraham Attah, is embraced by Idris Elba, only known as the Commandant. The Commandant is the leader of a small platoon of men, comprised of young soldiers who fight blindly for a leader who serenades them with rituals of camaraderie, war songs , vice and invincibility. Initially seeming like a fortuitous meeting, soon after Agu meets the Commandant and his troops, the film quickly reminds the watcher that there is no innocence in war. By this time, Agu has seen his father and friend gunned down, and barely escapes with his life, as he is met and accepted by the Commandant. However, before Agu can become fully integrated with the platoon he is surreptitiously presented with a choice: to kill a man who may or may not be innocent. Of course the choice to kill in such a situation is not a real choice because war is war; Agu slices the unknown man’s head open with a machete as the Commandant persuades him that this is one of the men who killed his family; subsequently, he kills several more times- until it becomes second nature. In fact, he kills and witnesses many deaths, is forced into doing drugs, pillages villages, sees women being raped and is even raped by the Commandant himself.
These jaw-dropping, horrific experiences draw the audience in and put Agu in a fugue at times. This hazy, drunken state illustrates the inebriating atmosphere of combat and the mental anguish it has caused for this young child. In the visually striking scene, where his platoon attacks a village, Agu walks down a road bordered by these dream-like pink plants; as he obliviously strolls down the path, bullets fly past his head, but as dead bodies pile up and grenades and rocket launchers sound off, he finally sobers; he is surrounded by fear and death and the pink plants assume their original dark green color. In this same village they reach a house where he thinks his mom might be stationed. He approaches a woman in said war haze, but sobers up when he realizes she is not his mother. The next scene, immediately you see another kid soldier, his friend Striker, stomping a little girl as she screams out for mercy; but there is none for her. Completely sober now, Agu utters these words: “God are you watching what we are doing?” In the next scene he shoots this woman in the head, who is being raped, to end her misery. A very potent set of scenes, they illustrate that there are no rules in war and no room for the naïve.
Only a few months older, but well versed in the art of war, somehow Agu manages to survive this nameless war. For many war veterans, like soldiers who made it out of the Biafra War, the War in Vietnam, or the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no such thing as the light at the end of the tunnel- one day everything just changes. The few minutes before the movie’s end, as the audience listens to the conversation between Agu and the counselor, tears fill his eyes while his words resonate within the hearts of listeners. Agu confides in her that he has done horrible things- things that he won’t say because he is afraid she will believe “he is some kind of beast.” Instead, he intimates how he used to be good and that his family loved him. The war is over, but not forgotten- it has probably just begun.
Years after lives, once meant for something greater, are lost, for those who survive the war the war to survive begins again. The film ends with hope, as Agu plays amongst children who might or might not be privy to the anguish of having to kill or be killed, but the mind is plastic and the audience wonders if this ending is truly a happily ever after. This skepticism surfaces because neural pathways and, ultimately, thinking change as overwhelmingly emotional experiences take place. Seen too many times, PTSD staggers the brain of soldiers, forcing them to become unhinged due to some perplexing connection with reality and dreams. The emotions of fleeing for your life after seeing family, friends and a village murdered first-hand would form synapses that could trigger hallucinations and metamorphose dreams into nightmares. Every soldier who has seen combat identifies with this struggle and understands that after the first war is over, there is always another war to fight.
In this fight the people who are fortunate enough to survive, adapt. Unfortunately life is ever-changing, especially at the most inopportune times. People have to break their life inertia and change, when needed; otherwise they become outdated and irrelevant and pariahs of society. Elba, deity-like to his men, is presented with a choice that he refuses to accept. He wants to remain leader of his men and, like Tweeters, grow his followers. He probably wants to attain the power to start a coupe one day, but the supreme commander strips him of this power and gives him a different position. He refuses to change, and ostracizes his platoon and himself to a remote part of the country. Ultimately, by resisting this change he destroys his chances of ever leading again. His troops die off from starvation and the few that remain make the decision to leave. The situation is ironic because he actually teaches Agu that in order to be a good leader one has to be a good follower, but refuses to follow orders himself. The choice to do something different is difficult for the person at the top of the food chain, but society always expects evolution.
Besides being a possible representation of the Biafra War, or a cautionary tale of why wars are devastating in general, or to make more modern countries like America privy to fact that war and the effects of war are an everyday struggle for some nations, there is a different revolution Beast of no Nation symbolizes. A watershed in entertainment history, this fight is the war on content innovation- the revolution will be televised. Far too long the world has been shackled by the linear thinking movie and television industries. Even though this linear equation has given birth to every great film and every actor we know today, barriers still exists. This hold on society has propagated prejudice, misrepresentation of society in film, and has been a barrier to new thinking and different ideas- for new movies to surface. And even though by challenging the movie industry, Netflix will not fix people’s racist attitudes towards a Black James Bond, Spiderman, or main Star Wars actor, this challenge will expose the power of change and its resisters. The industry is at its tipping point- the precipice even- and Netflix is going to push the world past its edge.
This is because society accepts evolution when it makes the user experience better. Like Agu, society must adapt. The fact that Netflix released its first premiere movie on Netflix Streaming and in theatres on the same day, is revolutionary, causing an uproar amongst the power that be. The movie industry, like The Commandant- a deity to Hollywood, is losing its position right before our very eyes. Netflix, no stranger to battle, started this war when its first concept of renting movies in the mail took out the likes of Blockbuster and Hollywood video. Pushing the envelope once again with its unmatched streaming television and movie services, Hulu, Redbox and Cable have become followers and are slow to adapt. But this is a different “beast”, and everyone is here to witness a paradigm shift in the way we consume television and movies. This is life as we know it now and there is no turning back. Those companies, instead of trying to block people from having to make a choice between consuming in a theatre or consuming at home, they need to evolve. It’s going to happen; it has already happened. The question they need to answer through innovative service is: “how can we make it better?”
Enfin, a lot of major theaters fought back by refusing to show the story of Agu and his tribulations on the big screen, but history has proven: companies that improve or adapt to Netflix’s concepts will be the companies consumers identify with in the future. While the movie does depict the loss of innocence, unlike Agu, Netflix is no stranger to this war and is bringing this longsuffering, unnamed war, to be remembered for generations, to the door step of the movie industry. Ultimately, Beast of no Nation demonstrates war is a microcosm of life, but the most important lesson the film teaches is: when change is needed change will happen. Those who refuse will lose, and pretty soon all movies will become “Beasts”.
Beast of no Nation Trailer