In his 2005 novel Beasts of No Nation, Uzodinma Iweala tells the haunting story of Agu, a young African boy who is forced to become a child soldier after losing his family to the conflicts of civil war. Under the leadership of the ruthless commandant, Agu is forced to grow up quickly, experiencing firsthand all of the horrors of war, including what it is like to kill.
A decade later, writer-director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) has brought the novel to the screen, with Idris Elba as the commandant and newcomer Abraham Attah as Agu. The film, which is already garnering Oscar buzz, will be released on Friday simultaneously via Netflix Instant and in select theaters nationwide. Following its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, I spoke with Iweala about how he created Agu’s world, what it was like to see Fukunaga adapt his work, and the upsides of Netflix’s unprecedented release strategy for the film. (Disclosure: Iweala is a friend of mine.)
What made you want to tell this story in the first place?
The short answer is: The first version of this was a short story I’d written when I was in high school, after reading a Washington Post article on the conflicts in Sierra Leone. I think it was just an article that sort of talked about child soldiers in general and the conflict, and this was back in the ’90s. Then when I got to college it was just something that stayed with me—but it wasn’t until we had this speaker series that we did with the Harvard African Students Association where we invited a former child soldier to come and speak with us. Her name was China Keitetsi, and she gave an incredibly important talk, and afterward I was waiting with her as she was going to be picked up and we were just talking, and she asked me what I was studying. I said, you know, I’m studying English but my parents want me to go to med school, and she was like, “Oh, I have no parents,” and that was kind of when it hit that there’s a whole aspect of this whole thing, the aftermath of life that people live and just generally how conflicts can impact people’s existence, that I didn’t really understand and I wanted to try and access a little bit more.
So I went back to the initial story that I wrote some years before, and started to try to turn it around into something, and that’s what eventually became the novel. I was lucky enough to have Jamaica Kincaid as my thesis adviser in college—actually two really great writers: Patricia Powell, I was taking her creative writing course when I wrote the first version, and I worked for Jamaica for a year after that, to turn it into my senior thesis, and that’s what basically became the novel.
How did the conversation of turning the book into a movie come about?
When the book came out, it had gotten some attention, and the movie folks, they’re always scouting. Cary [Fukunaga] was really into the idea, and I remember meeting him for the first time almost 10 years ago, and then watching his film Sin Nombre—which just blew me away—and then feeling like, OK, this person really understands story—this person really understands how important detail is and how important it is to really pay attention to the subject matter and tone, as opposed to some of the other folks we talked to who didn’t have his sensibility. And I think that’s when I felt really comfortable saying, OK, if we’re gonna do it, let’s do it. Then he wrote the screenplay, and as these things go, nothing happened for a while. And then a couple years ago, I guess the stars aligned and he was like, “We’re ready to do this.”
Did you have any reservations about having someone who is not African try to tell this story?
You know, it’s almost like the same reservations that I had when I was writing the book. My experience growing up has been as far away from that of what the book is about as you can possibly believe, right? So for me there was always that question in the back of my mind, and I think it’s a good one to have: Do you have a right to tell this story? I think everybody has any right to tell any story, but you have to seriously question yourself as you pick up any subject matter, because if you don’t, then you don’t treat it with the respect that it deserves.
And I think even more importantly, when you’re dealing with stuff that relates to Africa, you must consider the representations and how people have generally viewed the continent. All those things were swimming in the back of my mind. But again, watching Sin Nombre, and seeing somebody who’s not a gangster from Honduras being so respectful to that story is something I really respect as an artist, and I think that’s why I felt very comfortable.
How do you decide if you have the right to tell a story?
I don’t know. I think the thing for me was … How do you really get into the experience? This is not just, oh let me sit down and make stuff up. If you’re going to take a certain subject matter, you really have to do your research and understand what’s going on. Jamaica Kincaid would always say something like, “OK, if you’re writing about a farmer, and you’re talking about soil, and you say the soil tastes like X—do you know what the soil tastes like? Have you gone and tried to figure that out before you just start writing what you think sounds nice?” And that’s something that really stuck with me in general.
Just to shift the conversation a little bit—some major theater chains have refused to release the film because of the simultaneous Netflix release rollout and the effect they believe that will have on ticket sales. I’m curious what your thoughts are on this.
I think you’d have to talk to an industry person who really understands the dynamics of that. But for me, I think for folks of our generation, we grew up going to movies in the theater, and that’s one experience. But also times are changing, right? And so you’ve got a whole new way of accessing these products. Some of the shows that have been most culturally relevant have been out of Netflix—House of Cards, Narcos was just released. So the idea of moving a film to that realm and releasing directly to Netflix, I think, is just part of the transition we see in the way that we consume media.
Also, if you live in a part of the world that I live in, Lagos, [Nigeria,] on the continent, in Africa, you’ll see that people are consuming media in very different ways. Not everyone can go to the theater—in fact, the infrastructure for moviegoing in that part of the world doesn’t exist in the same way that it does in the U.S. So when you think about that, this is part of progress, it makes a lot of sense—how do we access where they are consuming media? I don’t know what that means about how relevant or irrelevant movie theaters will be in the end, but I think anybody who doesn’t observe what’s happening risks doing so at their own peril.
Is Netflix available in Africa? Will Africans be able to see this movie?
I don’t know—I know that Netflix is planning a big global rollout. But honestly, I don’t know.
[As of right now, Netflix is unavailable in Africa, though the company announced earlier this year that it plans to expand globally to 200 countries around the world by the end of 2016, and it’s been reported that South Africa will be at least one of the nations that is part of that plan.]
It feels like it should be important for them to see this.
That’s one of the things that I think is really cool about it being a new platform, is it makes it imminently more accessible for people, and it makes it more relevant globally, automatically. Obviously, a film about the continent of Africa on an issue that’s pertinent and stars Africans needs to be seen on the continent. And having a new platform for that, it makes you realize that you now have to pay more attention to other parts of the world as you’re making the films that you make. And I think that’s also probably the statement Netflix is trying to make: Storytelling is a global enterprise, and it’s not just one section of the world interpreting for the rest of the world to see.
What do you hope that audiences take away from Agu’s story?
There are two things, whether in the book or the film. One was: When you would read these newspaper articles—there are people who have done studies on how newspapers interpret the continent of Africa, and the coded language that’s used, in the same way that people write or speak about black people in the United States, there’s a whole lexicon, right?—for me it was like, you need to get beyond that. And the second thing was: You also can’t ignore that there are problems on the continent. So how do you bring those two things together? You need to look at how you humanize people within these difficult situations in which they’re living. Everybody thinks they are so far away from something like this, and you’re just not.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.