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BEASTS OF NO NATION: The Danger of Africa’s Single Story

A few weeks ago I found myself in a terrible state of mourning my beloved grandmother. A woman who was the matriarch of my original village of Black girls who taught me how to rock. A woman who helped to raise me in Ghana from my early formative years, whom I ended up only seeing and speaking with sporadically after I had left Ghana at five years old. My aunt asked me the other day if it upset me that she always called me “Kaakyire”  meaning last born because she saw me more so as her last born than as her first grandchild. I was perturbed by the question because I always took it as a sense of pride in the deepest kind of love that only a mother can have for her child, especially her last born; yet I understood the nuance in the power of the deeply rooted language in a mother claiming that title from her eldest daughter. My grandmother had made such an impact on my life in my formative years that she had become a part of my soul in a way that distance could have no power in denying the closeness of proximity in the memories, life lessons and actions that defined my everyday life.

Through my tears then and now, I could always find joy and love in the memories of a woman who always made me feel like I was that one in a million gem. A woman who would shower me with praises of a job well done as if I had won a Nobel Prize just because I took the time out of my day to call her. A woman who exhausted everyone and anyone who would listen to the 1 story she would tell over and over again of my 5 year old self, who was always ready for the challenge to fight off any neighborhood bully with words and fists when they came after me or my family; a story that tickled her beyond measure in constant laughter as if she had not told it over and over again for decades. I always watched her in curious pride as she told this story, in the pride of knowing that she had raised a young warrior who had now grown up to become her peaceful and calm princess. She knew that warrior cape maybe hidden from the surface, but was very much still alive and would come out when necessary. I think she told this story over and over again for decades every time she was in my presence or earshot of my voice so that I would never forget who I am and from whom and what I was made from. She was a woman who loved to dance, sing, get dressed up and laugh with me about how she was still young and had it going on, on those days when I teased her about her youthful particulars in dressing. A woman who had gone blind in her later years, but somehow could see everything and throw the greatest shade to have me SMH and LOL!

She was a woman who loved all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, but wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is in making it “plain plain” as we say in our culture, in letting folks know that she had her favorites. I’ve questioned the genuineness of the love of many in my life who repeatedly told me with words how much they love me, but I really don’t recall ever hearing those words from my grandmother because it isn’t our language and who we are as a family or a culture to repeatedly speak the words “I love you”; however I have never questioned nor doubted the immense and deep love that she had for me because it flowed deeper than any words could express in her actions, and goes to show how much importance we put on words when actions and living testaments will always speak louder than any words. I will never forget most of all a woman of great faith who grew up in the church that her father built, which raised many generations after him in the complex that he built with it, in order for us all whether near or far to always know where home base is and to never forget that home is always where you find your base.

I was far from home base and needed some alone time in my own thoughts and dreams of my home base in language, cuisine and terrain, so I ended up cooking my Kontomire Foi and had a Netflix and chill night with myself. I finally got Netflix for the first time to watch “Beasts of No Nation” because I knew it was filmed in Ghana and many people I knew played a role in its creation, so of course I wanted to support it as well. Unfortunately in the end, it left me feeling more depressed and distanced in my longing for home, in an unnecessary fictional characterization of a home I have never known. I couldn’t find the words to articulate my rejection of this single story of an Africa with no distinction of nations, languages, terrain, culture nor history beyond its global distinction of child soldiers, warlords and wars. This Africa was not my beloved Ghana that raised me and continued to sustain me in the possibilities of life, past, present and future. As I was tearfully loving on the memories of love stories once told to me by my grandmother of a Ghana that I never knew, and being overjoyed in a dream coming true for another one of our elders, Photographer James Barnor, in finally launching his first book of photography, depicting the true and non-fictionalized story of Ghana pre and post independence; I could not accept that after all these years of excellence and independence that “Beasts of No Nation” would be the biggest internationally acclaimed and distributed film shot in Ghana since Haille Gerima’s “Sankofa“. If this is our Sankofa then we must reevaluate how we “reach back and get it” in our commitments to our nation and in telling and owning our own stories. We can not blame a filmmaker for wanting to make a film based on a story that inspired him enough to find the means to reach back and get his dream. We can only blame ourselves in our own commitment, diligence and actions toward reaching back and realizing our own dreams. At the very least may this film be an example to us all in realizing that the Hollywood styled and budgeted blockbuster films that we dream of and aspire to, can be Made in Ghana to international demand and acclaim, and that we are the ones whom we have been waiting for.

As Nelson Mandela said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart“. Aside from Idris Elba’s one African accent that is used for all nations, I loved hearing a language that I am familiar with being spoken in an internationally released film along with its familiar terrain, but while the stories of child soldiers, warlords and wars are part of Africa’s real life stories past and present and should be told, we do not need any more fictionalized stories to add to the real stories of our setbacks and failures, without any real distinction outside of just being Africa. While “Beasts of No Nation” was shot in Ghana, acted by Ghanaians and spoke the Ghanaian language of Twi, it was not at all Ghana nor its story, but rather just an appropriation of its terrain, language and its people to tell the single story of the African continent that seems to only produce beasts of no nations. African nations have found love even in their beasts before, during and after wars, but we have experienced our greatest love, excellence and honor in our nations and its humanity for far more years in peace.  We owe it to ourselves and our future generations to find a means to pay that necessary balance forward in telling those stories of love, excellence, distinctive culture and joy in peaceful times, in order for the world and our future to know that Africans are more than beasts of no nations. In many African nations, you will see street hawkers like first time actor and Marcello Mastroianni’s Best Young Actor Award winner, Abraham Attah,  who plays the role of Agu in “Beasts Of No Nation”, along with many working in the informal sector that has really built and continues to maintain most African economies, diligently telling tourists to make sure that they tell a good story of their visit and to tell more people to come to their nations because many times their livelihoods depend on tourism; however many of their nation’s have not invested in tourism in a way that is beneficial and worthy of their contribution in employment nor dividends. Many African nations like Ghana have been touting for years that “Africa is open for business“, but we need to start challenging exactly what business Africa is open for when loan after loan and foreign invest after foreign investment, yields very little to nothing for the majority of the nation. Everyday that we have breath, we are faced with the responsibility of creating and telling our own story, so we are not absolved in the responsibility in just rejecting a point of view without a counter point of view in its place or in its balance.

I finally read an opinion piece by Nathaniel Kweku Simons on “Beasts Of No Nation” that eloquently expressed my instinctive rejection of the film; however at the end of rejection there  must come a new acceptance in the responsibility of Africans at home and abroad first and foremost, in our own commitment to change the stereotypical narratives, and to own and tell our own narratives in our own voices and spaces.

 

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.

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.” READ MORE

As Martin Luther King Jr. said “If you come with no agenda, you will become the agenda“.  Does the fault lie with the one who didn’t come with an agenda or the one who did? Ironically Nathaniel Kweku Simons’s opinion piece was posted on The African Channel’s site, a resource that internationally should uphold an African agenda.  The African Channel is one of Africa’s only international distributors of its stories and I commend them for their growth in telling more of a well-rounded and nations specific story of Africa than in the past, when it was heavily focused on South Africa. Now Nigerian owned film distribution company, iROKOtv has signed a distribution deal for a dedicated African section with US based Netflix and its 69 million global subscribers. Netflix has set a new bar for studio rejected feature films in distribution and how the world at large will view films in the future with a “new normal” in non traditional streams of distribution as it inked a $12 million deal to acquire the distribution rights of “Beasts of No Nation. Beasts of No Nation” since its release on Netflix on October 16th has had 3 million views in North America alone, and was the most viewed film in every country that it was available in, and now Netflix is gearing up for its full distribution to its global 69 million subscribers in 50 countries. We need to do the math and reach back and get in understanding of the ideals in Pan-Africanism and Cooperative Economics that paved the road to independence and allowed our newly independent nations to flourish in a period of African-Rennaissance that was on a mission to prove to the world that “after all the Black Man(woman) was capable of handling his/her own affairs”. With my new guardian angel watching me, I am commitment to stand in legacy with us all and many generations after us, as it was built, maintained and preserved for us. Ancestors pave the way and make room for new life. I’m am looking Forward Ever in Africa’s commitment to itself in excellence and in breathing new life and hope, that rejects the danger of our single story which has been told for far too long, void of its Black Orpheus style love stories.

 ”I was told the other day that we can’t do it alone, particularly when it comes to our creative arts, media etc., but I absolutely refuse to believe that considering that we have done it alone in the past and we continue to do it alone with the growth of the African film industry and the new found global desire and enthusiasm for African art, fashion , textiles and all things embodying African culture that we pretty much giveaway to others without upholding it with the utmost respect in recognizing our own legacy. Far too many of us refuse to see those achievements and the need to build on them because we are too busy chasing Hollywood dreams and White validation, while forgetting that those so called “White mainstream industries” where not built over night and that it took dedicated like minded people who believed in a dream through cooperative economics to manifest its success. So many Black Americans walk around talking about how Jewish people own Hollywood, completely bypassing the fact that they too had to fight their way in to have a seat at the table. Jews invested in themselves and took the idea of cooperative economics from ground up to the very top, so instead of being filled with complaints, misguided envy and woe is me coming of age rituals of Blackness, let’s reevaluate and reaffirm the foundation of what was started for us and by us that seems to be only stored in history books instead of our everyday life history’s present and future! See more

 

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