The lost boy

20 November 2015

Idris Elba was at the forefront of the trend for black British actors to turn to the States for roles of substance. He gave a stellar performance as Stringer Bell in The Wire, itself a trail-blazer for the now familiar long-form of TV drama. It is therefore fitting that Elba is again leading where others will surely follow, as star and producer of Beasts of No Nation. The film was funded by Netflix and has had ‘simultaneous distribution’, meaning it was available on the cable channel at the same time as a very limited cinema release.

More remarkable is that Netflix have chosen to fund a film about child soldiers, with an entirely black cast. Elba’s commitment to the project no doubt helped, as did Cary Fukunaga’s, responsible for direction on the brilliant first series of True Detective. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly challenging subject matter, and proves that Netflix has creative cajones as well as financial clout.

The film begins gently as we meet Agu (Abraham Attah) and his loving family, living ordinary lives in an unnamed West African village. The adults know that their country has experienced a military coup. They try to carry on as normal, but fear what is approaching. Agu and his chums are oblivious to adult concerns, and concentrate on how to charm or scam money out of the UN peacekeepers.

Inevitably, the fragile peace cannot hold, and the family has to take action to try and save themselves. But it’s not enough: and the scene in which the army finally arrive at Agu’s village is terrifying. Agu finds himself alone in the jungle, and is captured by the rebel force now fighting the army. Its leader is the darkly charismatic Commondant (Idris Elba), and he knows that boys can be very useful. Agu must fight or die.

Unsurprisingly, Elba commands every scene he is in. But equally strong is 14-year-old Abraham Attah, in his first ever role. He portrays the utter helplessness of a child caught in this situation without falling into sentimentality. Some scenes are hard to watch, as Agu’s situation becomes increasingly brutal, and brutalising. But it never feels gratuitous, and it is a genuine attempt to represent the experience of a child soldier (an important topic for charities and psychologists). And the cinematography captures the beauty of this part of Africa, and the ugliness of her wars, without ever resorting to cliché.

Beasts of No Nation is a brave and confident film, if not an unqualified artistic success. But as HBO did with TV drama, Netflix has the potential to shake up the film industry by improving the diversity of film output, and allowing creative talent to flourish. That is a welcome step.