The Verge says, “Fukunaga was made for depicting this kind of drama.”
After tremendous reception on True Detective (2014) and Sin Nombre (2009), Cary Fukunaga has been widely deemed one of the most skilled cinematographers working today. His ability to transform chaos into something smooth and orchestrated is captivating, and his understanding of framing, light, and colors endlessly serve to enhance the story being told. Never has that been more true than in Beasts of No Nation (2015), a film about child soldiers in an African civil war written, directed, produced, and shot by the man.
Fukunaga started working on the film nearly a decade ago following the release of the 2005 book of the same name by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. Interrupted by other projects and various funding issues, the film didn’t start production until 2014, when Fukunaga, Idris Elba, and a cast of mostly non-actors took to Ghana and attempted to make a vivid film about the brutal realities of child soldiers. There was rain, there were snakes, and some of the crew (including Fukunaga) even contracted Malaria during filming—but the result is a film not only powerful in content, but which found itself being released through innovative new avenues that speak to the future of film distribution.
Shot on a $6 million budget, Netflix purchased distribution rights to the film for $12 million. That is statistically about triple the going rate for a small indie production, particularly one with difficult niche subject matter. Though it had a tiny and disappointing theatrical release confined to various arthouse theaters, that didn’t matter. Its theatrical release was mainly to qualify for Academy Award consideration, while Netflix’s 69 million users serve as the film’s target audience. It’s the first film to be simultaneously released on a streaming service and in theaters, serving as one of many recent pushes by the service to build its library of original content and dominate the media landscape and woo content creators. The film aims to redefine what constitutes an award-winning film and how films get produced and distributed.
The film’s subject matter isn’t intended to educate people, as Fukunaga has said. It’s to show people the type of brutal existence that children in this situation have to deal with. The education comes naturally through the emotional weight of the piece, and the grim reality it showcases. Fukunaga has been studying the plight of child mercenaries since the 1990s, and wanted to create a film that puts this devastatingly real picture in front of people.
To capture that authenticity, the crew used a cast of no-name African individuals with no acting backgrounds. Idris Elba serves as the film’s one piece of recognizable star power in a performance blanketed by new talent. Beasts’ focal point, Agu, is played by Abraham Attah, whose acting debut has received almost universal praise and won him the Marcello Mastroianni Best Young Actor Award at the 2015 Venice Film Festival. He was discovered by casting director Harrison Nesbit, who had been traveling to various run-down schools in Accra, Ghana searching for the perfect lead. After nearly a thousand children were seen, Nesbit found Attah skipping school and playing soccer with some friends. Which, as it were, is exactly where Fukunaga imagined finding the right actor.
In his press notes, Fukunaga said, “I knew I needed to find a kid who had an edge to him, someone who had not necessarily led an easy life. He wasn’t going to come from the 2% of Ghana. He was going to come from some level of the streets. And he had to be someone who could embody Agu’s completely different emotional states from the beginning of the film to the end.”
Indiewire says, “As part of the process, Nesbit would show the kids clips of war films and get them to re-enact some of the scenes. Although Attah had no acting experience, he was a natural and even cried during the audition. Though he had never been a child soldier, he had seen enough hardship in his young life that he seemed to naturally understand Agu’s situation. ‘He just has such a soulful presence about him and he has an incredible empathy, I think, with how he was acting. That he wasn’t pretending, that it seemed like he was going back to things he had seen or just using his crazy imagination to put himself in these roles or in that position that we were asking,’ said Nesbit. ‘We were asking these kids to go to some pretty dark places pretty quickly, and Abraham had the emotional capacity to do that, and it was evident.’”
What drew Idris Elba (who almost fell off a cliff during filming) to the project was Fukunaga himself, and his unique approach to the storytelling. There’s no white messiah figure in Beasts of No Nation, and the film doesn’t come across as being distorted through the lens of Hollywood status quo. He also got the chance to play a dictator character with more dimension than a straightforward evil villain. As Elba said to Rolling Stone, “My parents are from West Africa, and the fact of the matter is, most of the screen images you see of Africa and the characters in those films feel like they’ve been filtered through a very two-dimensional perspective. The movies essentially aren’t about Africa; they’re [in Californian accent] ‘Hey, this is our African friend.’ Cary wanted none of that. He was determined to go after a sense of authenticity, of what it’s really like there. For the first 20 minutes or so, you’re just watching a normal African kid live his life.”
Though Elba had the role of Commandant in the picture, the actor playing his right-hand man was a real-life Commandant, who Elba said he was “shit scared of.” The authenticity the real combatants brought to the piece was something that couldn’t be fabricated.
All the particulars involved with Beasts of No Nation combined into a powerful piece of art and an innovative piece of business. Fukunaga was worried that nobody was going to want to buy the film and allow people to see it, and Idris Elba (who served as one of the film’s producers) shared his concerns. It was a labor of love and difficult to make, and fortunately for its investors, Netflix is into taking gambles.