Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novella published in 1899 about a European man’s journey into Africa and how his experience of the continent radically changes him. Beasts of No Nation is a modern film adaptation of a novel about a young African child’s experience of violence within his country, and how he is forced to adapt to traumatic and dangerous circumstances. Though Beasts of No Nation is set in the present, it shares a striking amount of similarities to Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s novella laid the framework for thematic and literary portrayals of Africa; the modes through which he engaged with the continent and its people are utilized throughout Beasts of No Nation. By looking critically into these shared similarities one can see the range of Conrad’s ideas about Africa across the centuries, and observe the ways those ideas have evolved and transmuted over time.
Heart of Darkness begins with European sailors approaching port in some unknown part of the continent, which we know to be the Congo. As they approach land Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, begins to wax poetic about the first white men to enter Africa and how must have seemed to them:
“Yes; but it is like a running blaze onset a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds… Imagine him here — the very end of the world… a sky the color of smoke… lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests.” (part 1)
Through Marlow, Conrad constructs an image of Africa that is on fire, storm-laden, and violent. The juxtaposition between the safety and comfort of the sailors aboard the ship and the turbulent imagery used to describe the conditions in this unknown land is meant to foreshadow Marlow’s story of his previous journey into Africa, as well as the cautionary tale of Kurtz’s descent into madness. Similar imagery is used in Beasts of No Nation (17:45:00–17:45:15). This scene is narrated by Agu, the film’s main character, and takes place right after his mother and sister are forced to flee their family home in anticipation of oncoming violence. In the scene it’s storming, and the camera pans from the safety of the Agu’s home to the storm outside. The viewer is able to take in the lightning as it flashes across the grey sky, and lights up the dark clouds hovering over black mountains in the distance. The scene serves the film in the same way that Marlow’s description of ancient Africa serves the plot of Heart of Darkness. The proximity of the dangerous and unknown symbolizes Agu’s impending journey into the darkness and lawlessness presumed to lie within the depths of this unnamed country. This technique of using extreme weather imagery to imply violence and turmoil within Africa is heavily utilized by both Conrad and the director of Beasts of No Nation; these anthropomorphic tendencies are still relevant in representations of Africa today.
These works share another similarity in the way that they “other” African people to build tension within the viewer. Othering, in this case, means to depict a situation in a way that appears contrary to the audience’s understanding of normalcy; this creates an uncomfortable distance between the subjects depicted within the media and the viewers of it. After Agu is kidnapped and trained as a child soldier, his battalion destroys a town. They celebrate their victory by singing and dancing in the streets (1:06:50–1:07:05). This revelry is meant to show their growing connection as a group and demonstrate Agu’s increased sense of belonging within this violent organization. The viewers are meant to feel uncomfortable during this scene. They have been encouraged throughout the film to empathize with young Agu’s struggle, and that empathy sits at odds with the revulsion one feels while bearing witness to the celebration of violence in which he is joyfully taking part. It is this tension, between compassion for Agu and destain for the violence he has been conscripted into, that drives the scene. Conrad takes advantage of the fraught space between empathy and revulsion as well. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow describes the actions of native African people he passes while on his boat: “They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”(part 2). Just like the scene in Beasts of No Nation, Conrad’s readers are shown a group of African people, removed from any context or basis for understanding, in an intense display of activity. The reader is then simultaneously urged to empathize with those Africans, in recognition of our shared humanity, and recoil from their perceived foreignness, their horridness. These mixed messages do great work within the novella and film. They pull the audience into the action of the story and ask them to choose who they want to be; will the viewer decide to hold on to their identity and push back against the unfamiliar, or project into the unknown and risk being transformed — perhaps even destroyed.
Interestingly, while the viewers and readers of these works are encouraged to question the complexities of their identities, the majority of African characters in both the film and the movie are rendered without identities at all. Conrad was objectively excellent at using black bodies to set a scene. This is evidenced within the following quote: “Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair!… And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die” (part 1). Conrad describes black people as shapes, separating them from their humanity and rendering them landscape, half in and of the ground. Bodies devoid of agency, just waiting to die and fully become one with the earth. This same method of utilizing bodies to set a scene devoid of real characters is used many times throughout Beasts of No Nation. Notably, we see this done in a scene in which Agu, the other displaced fighters, and their captives all lay on the forest floor (1:44:45–1:45:05). They are dejected, sick, hurt, and starving. These people are without purpose or any discernible goals. They are aimless bodies used to set the scene; rendered as inhuman as Conrad’s shapes among the trees.
So much of the success of these works lies in their ability to solicit a reaction in the viewers, a sense that they themselves have transversed an unknown territory and are leaving it as wiser and fuller versions of themselves. Beasts of No Nation and Heart of Darkness share a willingness to disregard the realities of Africa and a reliance on one-dimensional characters in order to build these stories that are never truly about Africa, but about how we view ourselves in relation to the “other.”
Despite the similarities between these works, the contexts of the novella and the film are very different. Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness at the height of the colonization of Africa when so much of the mythology surrounding Africa was at its peak. He wrote it for a white audience, regarding a culture and continent that he knew little about, and what he knew was rooted in white supremacy and as such did not encourage a self-aware approach. Meanwhile, Beasts of No Nation is a recent film meant to explore the effects of violence in modern day Africa upon a child (Egner). In attempting this goal through the modes of Conrad, Beasts of No Nation encounters a crucial problem. That problem is that Africa is no longer the unknowable continent Conrad visited; those primordial depths he’d described have now been mapped. Today we are able to access a clearer understanding of the cultures and histories that have existed across the continent throughout history. These African countries are now objectively of the world; they interact with and contribute valuable resources globally. So, why does Beasts of No Nation not name a country as its setting? The answer lies in noting what the film gains through this omission: which is the ability to speak about a specific experience without being beholden to the realities of any particular location, like the history of the country and the context of the violence. By filming in Ghana, but refusing to ground the film in Ghanaian history, the filmmakers are able to create a fictional landscape of a war that lurks somewhere within Africa. This choice allows them to build on the idea of displacement with full creative license. It gives them the freedom to play in the same way it did for Conrad. Heart of Darkness takes place in the area of the Congo; which we only know based on Conrad’s references to Belgium and the Congo River. Yet, he is intentionally vague about his position within the text. That allows him to make sweeping generalizations about all of Africa for dramatic effect. As within Beasts of No Nation, the landscape is heavily utilized and projected onto, but no attempts made to ground it in context or understand its past.
The tendency to use African people as props extends even unto characters who take part in the action. The fleeing men, the crying women, and screaming children throughout Beasts of No Nation all function more like objects, than characters. Their place in the story is restricted to one action; man dies or woman screams, much in the same way a glass falls or a chair breaks. The viewer doesn’t have to understand how the glass got in a position to be tipped, or who caused it to tip; they just see it fall and react. The reaction is what both the author and filmmakers are pursuing with this strategy. Conrad restricts his black shapes to their suffering on the ground or dancing on the coast, and Beasts of No Nation restricts their black bodies to suffering on the ground or begging to live. Despite the actions of these characters, which serve to add depth or push forward the narrative, they are devoid of anything that individuates themselves or pulls focus from the plot. Much like motion sensitive dummies, these bodies react to the stimulus of the main characters presence and become inanimate once they’re done reacting to them.
One-dimensional portrayals of black bodies encourage viewers to distance themselves from the general violence that runs rampant through this film. How can one empathize with the screaming man, if one doesn’t know why he’s shouting out? The empathy that has the audience rooting for Agu to be saved, or for Marlow to return to England unscathed, is never asked of us regarding these nameless (and often wordless) characters. The producers of these works are so concerned with evoking empathy and compassion for their main characters that, that they don’t concern themselves in the slightest with the humanization of the general populace. Agu’s family and his friend Striker are the only sympathetic, or particularly complex, African people in Beasts of No Nation. In Heart of Darkness, the onus isn’t on acknowledging the inherent humanity of the African people, but rather on elevating the white characters who claim to be able to see that glimmer of humanity. Those who are “man enough” to admit the truth of their inner “stuff”, in relation to the African’s perceived wildness (part 2).
Although these works were produced at different times and dealt with different subjects, their similarities speak to the addiction that western media consumers have to an idea of Africa. An outdated idea that Conrad manifested over a hundred years ago. One that allows viewers to be complex only in relation to one-dimensional characters; and uses violence, as well as othering, in order to rope in its audiences. If we can start to accept these representations as overdone, stereotypical, and far removed from the truth of Africa, then we can begin to tell stories that acknowledge and celebrate the realities of the Diaspora. Stories that are far more interesting than these long clung to fictions.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Project Gutenberg, 1 Nov. 2018,
Fukunaga, Cary J, director. Beasts of No Nation. Netflix, Netflix, 16 Oct. 2015,
Egner, Jeremy. “Cary Fukunaga Isn’t Trying to Educate You With ‘Beasts of No Nation’.”
The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/25/movies/cary-joji-fukunaga-on-the-perils-of-making-beasts-of-no-nation.html.