Towards the end of his largely positive review of Cary Fukunaga‘s Beasts of No Nation, Matt Zoller Seitz notes there are aspects of the film “that feel somehow untrustworthy, or at least not immediately defensible. And it’s a short hop from there to the realization that this is the second recent, highly acclaimed film about dark-skinned people not directed by an African or an African-American that has the word Beasts in the title.” In other words, Fukunaga and Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin may have conveyed a strain of unconscious racism — dark skin, beastly behavior, collective shudder.
“After that,” Seitz goes on, “you might realize that the Western commercial cinema almost never tells stories of Africa, except to sentimentalize European colonialism (Out of Africa, An African Dream, The Ghost in the Darkness) or show the depths of depravity of which Africans are capable (Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland, this).” Nobody wants to defend films that sentimentalize European colonialism by painting flattering portraits of racist exploiters like Karen Blixen, but could Seitz be right about Rwanda, Scotland and Fukunaga’s film — did their makers focus on savage, bloodthirsty behavior on the part of certain African tribes and leaders to suggest there’s something unholy under their skin?
“And then comes the question, maybe, of what, exactly, is being communicated in Beasts of No Nation, beyond the fact that a boy has been horrendously traumatized by being conscripted and taught to torture and kill? Not much, really, even though, as stated up top, the movie’s visceral effectiveness is so overwhelming that to deny it would be dishonest.
Then Seitz brings out the heavy artillery: “Why are we being told this particular story, at this particular time, in this particular way?” Get it? Now is the wrong time to be making a film like Beasts of No Nation because in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson and all those random cop shootings and with Black Lives Matter on everyone’s case we need more positive portrayals of African and African-American cultures, just as many will be saying two months hence that now is definitely the wrong time for another Quentin Tarantino film that liberally uses the “n” word. It’s the wrong time to spread ugliness. We need to engage with a socially positive mindset and stop wallowing in traumatic stereotypes.
“Is the message or point [of Beasts of No Nation] so urgent that it required a portrait of African men behaving like beasts for two hours?,” Seitz asks. “The film is good to excellent in every way except morally, and there it’s questionable more often than it should be, not because it’s an evil film, or because the filmmaker or actors are bad people, but because the interplay of means and ends has been under-thought or misjudged, to the point where the film becomes a catalog of obscenities: a horror thrill-ride drawn from life, a thing for viewers to test themselves against while feeling just awful about Agu and his country, whatever its name is.”