Beasts of No Nation and How Western Cinema Sees Africa


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Editor’s Notes: Beasts of No Nation is currently available to watch on Netflix. 

Netflix’s first foray into the feature film market, Beasts of No Nation, has attracted a sizable amount of acclaim and anticipation this Fall. Directed by Cary Joji Fukungawa, who lent True Detective‘s first season its visual panache, and head-lined by rising international star Idris Elba, its recent release will be a test run for how much popular and awards attention Netflix can attract as a nascent movie distributor.

Beasts of No Nation is also being released in the midst of an on-going social and political maelstorm about identity politics. I’m not here to bury or praise the film as a part of that on-going discussion, that’s the purview of our reviewer. But I did think it was worth noting that Beasts fits into the long-standing Western perspective that Africa and its inhabitants as being unusually uncivilized and barbaric.

Beasts fits into the long-standing Western perspective that Africa and its inhabitants as being unusually uncivilized and barbaric.

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It’s beyond the scope of this article to trace the historical circumstances and tragedies that inform this view. But it’s safe to say that hundreds of years of slave trading, colonization, and neo-colonial economic exploitation has left the Western mind with a misplaced sense of superiority and a zeal for tone-deaf moralizing. To paraphrase John Green, it’s amazing that even today we are unsure if Rudyard Kipling was joking when he wrote about the White Man’s Burden. Either way, the idea that white, heterosexual men were naturally supposed to take over and rule the world was taken for granted and has informed the mainstream perception of Africa to this day. Transparent expressions of ideas like that are no longer part of our popular culture and it’s safe to say that the filmmakers behind Beasts would shudder with the rest of us at their expression. Nevertheless, the release of Beasts made me consider what Africa looks like when a mainstream Hollywood movie is set there. The results do not paint a wonderful picture, though it can be argued that says more about the painter than the subject.

Considering that long history of prejudice and misperception, it’s hardly surprising that contemporary films about Africa, even those with laudable political sentiments, tend to circle back on stereotypes . . . 

The Golden Age of Hollywood, in the first half of the 20th Century, coincided with the last few decades of the brief and cataclysmic period of European colonization that started with the infamous “Scramble for Africa” in the late 1800’s. Considering  how deeply entrenched racism was in American law and society at the time,  it’s unsurprising that Hollywood used Africa as little more than a shorthand for exotic primitiveness in this period. Long-running adventure series like Tarzan and Jungle Jim showed white heroes outside of their “natural” habitat were still able to be strong and victorious. They turned colonization into a child’s playtime dream. The occasional A-picture movie set on the continent invariably centered on Europeans or Americans dealing with matters of colonial politics or the forbidding landscape. Even in a classic political and romantic thriller like Casablanca, Africa’s people were invisible and their lack of self-determination is never even thought of. The continent exists as a shadow play of Western power politics and intrigue.

The period of decolonization in Africa began right as Hollywood’s old studio system was collapsing in the 1950’s and 60’s. Despite the infusion of young politically-conscious filmmakers this brought about, most Western films that dealt in African politics were post-colonial fantasies. Zulu, from 1964, told the story of British soldiers under attack in southern Africa in the 19th Century. Out of Africa, the Best Picture winner from 1985, was a romance between two aristocratic Europeans set in colonial East Africa during World War I. Features like these served to emphasize that Africa was once a beautiful place where Whites could comes and learn something about themselves. The perspectives of the people they ruled over there were still rarely explored. Even seemingly innocuous comedies like the 1980 South African hit The Gods Must Be Crazy or Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America reinforced old stereotypes. Both were remarkable for being world-wide hits about African characters, but it’s fair to assume that many Westerners walked away from the film with their presumptions about African primitiveness unchecked.

There were some exceptions to this trend in Western cinema, of course. The most famous is Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterful The Battle of Algiers tells the story of the revolt against French rule in North Africa by shifting perspectives among the French soldiery, Algerian resistance fighters, and the civilians who inexorably get drawn into the fighting. Its documentary-like realism and even-handed treatment of the characters on both sides would inspire generations of political filmmakers.

Many Westerns films about Africa began to dispense with even considering the continent’s people. Wildlife documentaries and features began to flourish as it became easier and cheaper to shoot on location in the late 20th Century. The majesty and wonder of Africa’s fauna had long fascinated people the world over, of course, and the 70’s and 80’s were a period of increasing environmental awareness. So feature films like Gorillas in the Mist and White Hunter Black Heart or the myriad of TV documentaries in the period brought home the importance of Africa’s animals. This movement probably reached its apotheosis with Disney’s The Lion King, which reigned as the most popular animated film of all time for over a decade. Admirable as the conservationist cause is, this focus also tended to (again) reinforce a sense that Africa and its people were far less developed than the West.

Considering that long history of prejudice and misperception, it’s hardly surprising that contemporary films about Africa, even those with laudable political sentiments, tend to circle back on stereotypes or give places of privilege in the cast or crew to Westerners and Whites. Think of A Dry White Season, which dramatized Apartheid by focusing on an Afrikaner awakening to the system’s evil. Or Invictus, which somehow decided the most telling moments of Nelson Mandela’s  post-Apartheid Presidency was his friendship with a White rugby player. The Constant Gardener told a vital story of international pharmaceutical  companies using poor Africans as their unwitting test subjects. But that story was still told through the experience of a White British diplomat’s time in Africa. Blood Diamond and Lord of War both tackled the disastrous wars that wracked East Africa in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but did so (again) by telling the story of white men’s involvement in those wars.

It’s onto that uncomfortable tradition that Beats of No Nation is released this week. While it does break the tradition of telling African stories by inserting a White protagonist, it topic is still a brutal war. That’s not to say that that story should not be told, of course, especially when early reviewers compared it to all-time classics of the genre like Apocalypse Now. But it’s hard not to see the film as yet another example of the long tradition of stereotyping and misperception by the West . The qualities of  Beasts aside, we must note that mainstream Western films have always tended towards viewing Africa as the “Dark Continent.” It, and its inhabitants, are simply primitive, wild, violent, and prone to cataclysm. It takes only a cursory glance at African cinema to show that they do not see themselves that way. Even more, Africans  actively fight against this perception. Earlier this year, social media users used the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou to shine a light on the beauty and conventionality of daily life in Africa. It’s high time for Western filmmakers or distributors to take that to heart and make a film that reflects it.


About Author

I'm a life-long Midwesterner currently living in Chicago where I write and teach about Cinema, Mass Media, and Popular Culture. A self-described information junkie, I can be found spending too much time with video games or sports, devouring political news and commentary, or reading about history.