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Opinion: Why ‘Beasts of No Nation’ Does Nothing to Progress African Narratives

November 6, 2015

I don’t want to be an overly sensitive first-generation Ghanaian-American. I don’t want to be obsessively critical of media portrayals of Africans in the Diaspora or the Continent. I don’t want to be insulted by skewed perceptions to the point that I feel obligated to take action and speak up.

But I am because storytelling about Africa demands it.

With consistent images focusing on war, poverty and corruption, western films made about Africa or Africans have become one note. And quite honestly, I’m fed up of seeing films like Beasts of No Nation receive widespread distribution. It’s time for stories with varied, modern views of African life to reach global audiences.

Prior to Watching Beasts of No Nation, I read the script and so I knew what I would be getting myself into if I decided to watch the movie. A novel by Nigerian writer and Harvard-grad Uzodinma Iweala, and adapted for film by writer and director Cary Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation is a fictional story about the experiences of Agu, a young boy forced to become a child soldier after his family is murdered in an unspecified African country.

And I get Iweala’s intention. Many African countries do share the unfortunate truth of destructive civil wars and innocent children turned to merciless soldiers. But come ON! Not choosing a specific country only furthers the ignorant notion that Africa is a country and that the beautiful, diverse languages and traditions do not exist. Sadly, Iweala played into this notion, writing a story that was tailored to fit the mold of what western money has become accustomed to funding.

Adding to the insult, the decision to have characters in the film clearly speak Twi, a language only native to Ghana, is odd. So which is it, no country or Ghana? Or is it insignificant, because who cares which of “those African languages” was used since no one’s really paying attention.

Yes, it’s a well-crafted story, gripping until the last frame, hitting all the right beats to pull on your heartstrings and deliver a compelling movie. Yes, it’s masterfully acted by Golden Globe winner Idris Elba and Ghanaian newcomer, 15-year-old Abraham Attah (winner of the 2015 Best Young Actor Award at the Venice Film Festival). Yes, it was shot in Ghana, bringing opportunities to hundreds of locals and spurring the local economy. War is horrific, especially when it corrupts children, and it solidifies that message.

beasts of no nation

Yet, despite these “victories” and the attention given to Africa, I can’t fully celebrate knowing that Beasts of No Nation is another African story added to the many films made about Africa that deal with war, poverty and corruption. It’s a travesty and reality to say that, as a Ghanaian-American man in 2015, I am yet to see a film with western support reach a global audience with a theme that doesn’t have to do with excessive violence, war, corruption or Nelson Mandela.

While I know better than to accept the realities depicted in these films as the reality of all 54 countries in Africa, for individuals who’ve never experienced the cultural complexity of Africa or Africans, these films on war become synonymous with Africa, giving little concern to contextualize it.

Especially since nothing else is put out there to tell a different story.

The list of popular films made in or about Africa with western support reads like this: Congo, Tears of the Sun, Blood Diamond, The Battle of Algiers, The Last King of Scotland, Hotel Rwanda, Invictus, Captain Phillips, War Witch, The Good Life, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. These films, while impressive cinematic accomplishments homogenize the diverse scope of African experiences.

And so I come back to the same issue many Africans hold about depictions seen in mainstream media when it comes to Africa. Why are African stories unworthy of global reach and critical acclaim unless they centralize corruption and greed? When was the last time you saw a widely distributed African story about love, humor, joy, or success? When was the last time you saw an African comedy about an authentic African experience? And no, Coming to America doesn’t count. There’s clearly an agenda when it comes to films made about Africa and it’s not one that allows for diverse accounts of what it’s like to be African.

In a 2009 TED Talk given by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she elaborates on the danger of a single story (or one that is repeatedly shown) as harmful because it “creates stereotypes and not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Beasts of No Nation does nothing to progress African narratives because similar to many Oscar-nominated films, it’s a stereotype, an incomplete story, which stigmatizes the continent as the climate in which war, poverty and corruption are the only stories worth telling. And I challenge filmmakers and investors, to do better.

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