Zoé Samudzi

Beasts of No Nation poses some complicated questions about Hollywood’s treatment of black masculinity. While the movie based on the 2005 novel by Uzodinwa Iweala is cinematically brilliant, it is yet another example of Hollywood’s gleeful consumption of African disaster porn: the blood mineral-replete, eternally poor, authoritarian leader-abundant continent that also happens to be a single, perpetually flowing stream of blood. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the plot revolves around a young boy named Agu who is recruited (or press-ganged) into a rebel faction during a brutal civil war following a military junta’s murder of his father, brother, and grandfather. The movie follows his evolution from an innocent child into a hardened soldier (not that the evolution is as clearly defined as this), all whilst searching for redemption through his mother, from whom he was separated at the outbreak of hostilities. 

I want to discuss the other star of the film: the charming Idris Elba, who plays the Commandant, a military commander leading a regiment of child soldiers. I want to pose a question about his portrayal of the character he embodies, namely whether the convincingness of his portrayal was a product of his talent or because it reified a familiar Hollywood trope.

Elba’s sexuality within this brutal role speaks to the nature of war and masculinity. War, one violent expression of nationalism, is the ultimate expression of the violent hypermasculine and per the masculine gaze, this hyperviolence becomes a form of idealized masculinity (i.e. the attainment and reassertion of a hegemonic masculinity is often intimately linked to the use of violence and sexual dominance). We collectively recognize his sexuality, but we don’t recognize the way in which sexualizing gazes also pervade our understanding of uses of violence. 

Child soldiers are not unique to Africa or even the Global South, but unfortunately there is a centuries-old pathological need to select and portray certain African stories, centering and universalizing the poorest, most depraved and the most violent while stripping these reflections of the reality of their context. Perhaps the lack of imagination in portraying African stories reflects, at least in large part, the deep investment in propagating certain understandings of black masculinities. We have imagined Elba as this "Superpimp of the Third World," the undeniably appealing African man’s man, for his portrayal of both context-specific psychology and the effortlessness within which he exudes an idealized sexuality, because of our literal inability to construct black masculinity outside of the white [masculine] gaze’s sexualized fear.

White supremacy – the white gaze – has a deep investment in these specific tropes of non-white masculinity, and this racialized gaze is deeply invested in sexualized racism against black men. The American prison-industrial complex, for example, is built around not just the inherent criminality of black men, but also the risk they pose as hyperaggressive and hypersexual monsters. One perfect example of this sexualized racism is in the history of marijuana prohibition in the United States. Harry Anslinger, who led the war against marijuana in the early 20th century, warned against marijuana’s “effect on degenerate races” e.g. that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men” and that “marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.” Today, despite comparable rates of use between black and white people, black men are overrepresented in marijuana-related arrests and incarceration and are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession.

The white gaze’s imagination of black masculinity is both a fear of and desire for a sexualized racial “other.” Crucial to our understanding of this gaze is not just the subordination of blackness by whiteness, but the historical relationships between them and the attempts to regulate them. Frantz Fanon showed that the nature of sexualities and desire-repulsion are central to conditions of oppression. Separations between and attempts to maintain homogeny within racial groups (through anti-miscegenation laws, for example) pointed to ways that white leaders sought to regulate sexual activities and desires. Tamara Shefer and Kopano Ratele explain this phenomenon in “Racist sexualizations and sexualized racism in narratives of apartheid”:

“Arguably, the incorporation of sexual regulatory practices was not only about the conscious extension of white power over black lives from the personal to the political. This racial power was also powerfully gendered, reflecting the old patriarchal notion of women as men’s possessions….[B]lack men in the colonial experience narrated by Fanon sexually desire white women as a part of the larger wish to attain the position of the privileged, powerful master race…[C]onstructions of black sexual prowess signal white male anxiety with respect to loss of power and privilege in which women figure primarily as sexual objects of possession…” [1]

The white gaze’s hegemonic construction of black masculinity leads one to ask an uncomfortable question about Idris Elba’s performance in this film. Is he truly such a superb actor that he so perfectly embodies the role of the Commandant, or does his perfect embodiment rather speak to Hollywood’s narrow portrayal of black masculinity and the typecasting of Elba into specific kinds of roles? There were moments in the film where audiences could easily forget they weren’t watching a brutal power-hungry military commander who used rape as a means of consolidating loyalty within his underage ranks. From his almost surreal introductory entrance flanked by his fighters, to the bar scene where he flirts with a young woman (before plotting the murder of the subordinate who would be his replacement), there is an uncomfortable juxtaposition of and gap-bridging between the characteristic charisma and swagger he possesses off-screen and the sexual presence the role demands. But does this speak to his acting chops or that these pathologies of black masculinity, originating in colonial mythology, have blurred the borders between Hollywood fiction and our perceptions of reality?

Zoé Samudzi is presently research coordinator at UC San Francisco after receiving a masters degree Health, Community, and Development at the London School of Economics. She is interested in deconstructing gender and racial hegemonies, specifically as they pertain to marginalized communities' interactions with structural whiteness. Twitter @ztsamudzi.

[1] Shefer, Tamara, and Kopano Ratele. "Racist sexualisation and sexualised racism in narratives on apartheid." Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society 16.1 (2011): 27-48.