Awards Profile: Beasts of No Nation

Welcome to the 2015 Awards Profiles series.  For the next two months, every day (except for Saturday), we will bring you a run down of a future 2015 film that we see as a potential awards vehicle for next year’s Academy Awards.  This is all speculative since with just about all these films, we haven’t seen a frame yet.  Nonetheless, we venture on.  If you miss a film, then click on the tag “2015 Awards Profile.”

Directed by: Cary Fukunaga
Written by: Cary Fukunaga
Cast: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple and Opeyemi Fagbohungbe

Synopsis: A child soldier is drafted to fight in the civil war of an unnamed African country.

Why it might succeed:

So there’s this director. Cary Jôji Fukunaga. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Made a student film that won a, shall we say, fair number of awards. Five years later he broke out with his first feature, the powerful immigration drama Sin Nombre, which was enough of a success both financially and critically to grease the gears for his drama about child soldiers in Africa.

Ha! C’mon, you didn’t really think a movie like that would be realized so easily, did you? No, Fukunaga had to put his adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel on hold for a while, along with a musical he came up with while promoting Sin Nombre. Instead, his sophomore feature performed the miracle of actually having a fresh take on the upteenth-adapted Jane Eyre, but it was his subsequent venture into television that really put him on the map. While Nic Pizzolatto was the man who created and wrote the insanely popular HBO crime series True Detective, Fukunaga directed the entire first season of the show. That strong, singular directorial hand applied to all eight episodes played a large role in its success, and made the show as much his as Pizzolatto’s. Perhaps that’s why Fukunaga was not asked to come back for Season Two, but don’t feel too bad for him; his long-gestating Beasts of No Nation finally became a reality during that time and stands a very real chance of leading him to a Best Director Academy Award to pair with his Primetime Emmy.

The book that Beasts of No Nation is based on is a short (only 142 pages!) but brutal tale of the experiences of Agu, a young boy who is recruited to a ragtag platoon of rebels fighting…some sort of conflict in a country that’s left deliberately unclear to the reader (possibly Nigeria). It’s written in a highly stylized prose meant to mimic the syntax of several African languages as well as the mindset of a confused child having to deal with concepts of death and being forced to do evil things to survive. It is very much in keeping with Fukunaga’s recurring themes of displaced peoples searching for something beyond their immediate realities, and he will likely employ a unique and intimate point of view similar to Iweala.

The film’s biggest star is Idris Elba, whose career has been simmering but just shy of full-blown stardom for far too long, in my opinion. He’ll be portraying the Commandant, the intimidating, monstrous officer in charge. Elba certainly has the ability to communicate an outsized, menacing leader, and this role is his best shot at more widespread recognition since the disappointing Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The rest of the cast is made up entirely of unknowns, though a breakout from one or more of them is certainly possible, especially Abraham Attah as Agu. Oddly, there is no information available as to the appearance of several important characters in the novel including Strika, a mute boy who becomes Agu’s closest friend during the war. Whether they just haven’t been revealed yet or were taken completely out of the film version I’m not sure.

Beasts of No Nation has several advantages in its favor to not only be a serious awards contender but an extraordinary film in its own right.

Why it might not:

Did I mention this story is brutal? Child soldiers are a crushing reality that most people in the world would rather not think about. Hell, audiences had a hard time watching Blood Diamond, which was about as squeaky-clean coddling as one could possibly be about the subject. Who knows how many people will have the stomach for an honest take on young boys forced to become murderers? Let’s also not forget the sobering lesson we learned this year that some members of the Academy actually keep a mental quota of how many movies about non-white people they feel comfortable supporting. Since they apparently felt it was an unfathomable display of generosity to break from the “default” of honoring movies about white heterosexual men when they awarded Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave last year, they might #AllLivesMatter this film just as they did with Selma.

But the real question mark attached to Beasts of No Nation concerns its distributor. In what may very well be an industry bombshell depending on how the film turns out, worldwide distribution rights were bought by Netflix for $12 million. And yes, Netflix is planning an aggressive Oscar campaign for it. Originally the plan was to release it for streaming simultaneously with a wide theatrical release, but most theater chains demand a 90-day delay between theatrical and home media availability. So in retaliation for breaking this “rule,” the four largest theater chains in the United States – AMC Cinemas, Carmike Cinemas, Cinemark, and Regal Entertainment – will be boycotting Beasts of No Nation, making its theatrical release limited with no chance of expansion. For their part, Netflix looks like they couldn’t care less. They’ve already irrevocably changed the entertainment industry and I’m sure they see this as continuing to do so, but how will Hollywood respond? It’s possible they might immediately embrace such a bold move from Netflix as the future of film distribution and add that to their list of reasons to reward the film. It’s not completely out-of-the-question for the otherwise conservative voting body – their second annual ceremony went out of its way to vault full-scale into the sound era and technological pioneers like Avatar and Gravity routinely receive multiple nominations and wins from them. But it’s also just as possible that they’re not quite ready to embrace Netflix in the same way that the Emmys weren’t at first. How audiences and Hollywood respond to Beasts of No Nation may very well set the course for how feature films are distributed for the next several years.

Beasts of No Nation will be available for streaming via Netflix coinciding with a very limited theatrical run later this year.

Oscar Potential:
Picture (Daniel Crown, Cary Fukunaga, Amy Kaufman, Riva Marker and/or Daniela Taplin Lundberg)
Director (Cary Fukunaga)
Lead Actor (Idris Elba and/or Abraham Attah)
Supporting Actress (Ama Abebrese)
Adapted Screenplay (Cary Fukunaga)
Film Editing (Mikkel E.G. Nielsen)
Costume Design (Jenny Eagan)
Makeup and Hairstyling (Clinton Wayne et al)
Original Score (Cliff Martinez)
Sound Mixing (Geoffrey Patterson)
Sound Editing (Allan Zaleski)