From time to time a book will come along that shows us what we still don’t know, or acknowledge, about the history of racism in these United States. And there are times when, the plethora of movies notwithstanding, a movie will come along that helps understand how chaos and violence still lurks in the shadows of too much of Africa. “Spectacle” written by Pulitzer Prize winning author and NYU professor Pamela Newkirk is such a book. “Beasts of No Nation” produced by Netflix and Idris Elba is such a motion picture.
“Spectacle” (published by Amistad) is first and foremost the story of Ota Benga, an African man who was literally snatched from the Congo in the early part of the twentieth century and put on display in the United States. His first “appearance” was at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and then in the New York Zoological Gardens (now the Bronx Zoo) in 1906. He was seen by millions of visitors to the Fair and the Zoo who flocked to see human beings who were considered to be examples of the lowest level of evolution.
Viewed through the lens of the 2015 such bestial and callous treatment of other human beings would be unthinkable. But Dr. Newkirk, a professor at New York University and formerly a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, points out in “Spectacle” that the exhibition of an African man in a zoo reflected a virtually universal mindset in white America and in Europe that people of African descent were naturally and absolutely inferior. Hence, the horrific treatment of Ota Benga was seen as no worse than putting a tiger, elephant or gorilla on display.
But “Spectacle” also includes other important historical facts that have been shrouded by the mists of time. In reading this book we learn of the unthinkable genocidal rule of Belgian King Leopold II who held the Congo as his personal property. The level of vicious and rapacious cruelty that marked his regime has scarred that region of Africa to this very day.
We also learn the deep rooted racism in the attitudes held by the most prominent Americans of the day including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (who hosted the premiere of “Birth of a Nation in the White House”). American universities, scientific institutions and general society held Americans in such low regard that any suggestion of equality or equal treatment was quite literally unthinkable and, to the point of “Spectacle”, unimaginable.
And finally, “Spectacle” reveals the awesome will and determination of so many black Americans to achieve education, progress and respect. Creating and building communities, towns, universities, churches, charitable institutions in the lingering shadow of slavery, a shadow that undeniably remains over this country to this very day. The book reintroduces the heroic men and women who proved the racist theories to be the lies that they were (and are) as they laid the foundation for any and all accomplishment by black Americans to this very day.
“Beasts of No Nation”, written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and starring Idris Elba is important for several reasons. In chronicling the tale of a young boy who becomes a part of a cruel and sadistic army of lost boys headed by a cruel, rapacious and homicidal commandant (excellently portrayed by Mr. Elba), “Beasts” exposes the underbelly of the violence that plagues too much of Africa.
The bloodshed and violence is an illustration of black on black crime at its worst. And while hardly a white face is seen in the movie, one has to know that the endless supply of guns and bullets and missiles had to come from somewhere, and Africa is not the source.
Finally, it is important to note that Netflix is part of the production group that financed “Beasts of No Nation”. Netflix released the movie on Netflix and we are seeing the future of motion picture production and distribution unfolds before our very eyes.