Since the 2016 Oscar nominations were announced Thursday, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has been getting some major traction on Twitter. And for good reason. The Academy completely ignored Beasts of No Nation, a film that, in my humble opinion, is the most original and gripping drama of 2016. Here's why this Oscar Snub really makes me mad:
Ghanian child actor Abraham Attah plays the character Agu — a young boy from a remote African village, forced to join a mercenary group led by a cagey comandante (Idris Elba) after soldiers kill his family. And he acts so naturally that I almost forget I'm watching a dramatic film at times. His scenes feel so organic that they have a documentary-like quality to them.
Attah's brilliant performance hasn't gone unnoticed. He received Marcello Mastroianni's Best Young Actor Award at the Venice International Film Festival. And the Black Film Critics Circle recently gave Attah its Rising Star award. The U.S.-based association of critics hit the nail on the head in December when it called Attah "one of the strongest and most phenomenal [actors] we have ever seen," adding that he has "a very bright future ahead of him." I couldn't agree more. Too bad the Academy doesn't.
I was impressed by the way director Cary Joji Fukunaga managed to tastefully deal with the heavy, tragic subject of child soldiers. Though the film features plenty of incredibly disturbing violent scenes (I actually had nightmares after watching it right before bed — so maybe don't do that!), Fukunaga struck the difficult-to-find balance between glamorizing and sugar-coating violence. The camera never lingers gratuitously — only long enough to leave a mark on you.
Beasts of No Nation may explore the ugly side of war, but it's also, surprisingly, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films I've ever seen. Whether you're watching child soldiers run through a lush jungle during a psychedelic drug scene or seeing young children leap into the waves, the natural beauty of the film's locations (it was largely shot in Ghana) perfectly contrasts with the dark subjects it explores.
Usually when you see a film filled with kids, the acting's kind of uneven. Why? For the simple fact that child actors are children — not fully formed adults who've had years to develop their acting chops. But I couldn't get over just how insanely brilliant all the young actors in this movie were. You didn't feel like they were acting — they just seemed like kids, being themselves. In particular, young Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye channelled a quiet source of power in his performance as the strong, silent young soldier Striker.
Most of the war movies that come out of Hollywood have a particular look and feel. Why? Because they're often shot in California — whether directors are re-creating the Middle East in sunny Cali, like American Sniper did, or filming movies like Pearl Harbor in Long Beach and San Pedro. But Beasts of No Nation adds a completely unique flavour to the genre, shooting mostly in the Ghanian jungle.
And this is a totally different kind of war movie than we're used to watching, because the conflict we're witnessing isn't even named. These children could be fighting in a number of different wars, but the particulars aren't important. The children don't understand exactly why they're fighting, so viewers don't need to either. Rather than being an ideological Hollywood war movie, this film drives home the message that the fighting we're watching is tragic and senseless.
Beasts of No Nation may show the horrors of violence, but it never loses its humanity. We see heartwarming moments of friendship between Agu and Striker that thrive amidst all the chaos of war and childhoods cut short. And there are beautiful family moments that capture the enduring power of love during times of crisis.
So if you haven't seen this movie, please see it! Just make sure you have plenty of tissues nearby, and prepare to get mad at the Academy for snubbing it.
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