The worldwide distribution rights were bought by Netflix for around $12 million; it was released simultaneously in theaters and online through its subscription video on demand service. Considering it a violation of the traditional 90-day window of exclusivity to theaters, AMC Cinemas, Carmike Cinemas, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment-four of the largest theatre chains in the United States, announced that they would boycott the film, effectively downgrading it to a limited release to smaller and independent theaters.
Cary Fukunaga cast real former child soldiers and members of the various factions from the Sierra Leone and Liberian Civil War such the Liberian Armed Forces, the LURD, and the CDF as extras and consultants but they ran into difficulty getting everyone onto the set in Ghana because they were held up in the Ivory Coast as suspected mercenaries.
Originally, Cary Joji Fukunaga wasn't meant to be the director of photography as well as writer and director. However. after the original DP injured his arm before the shoot, it was decided to not get a new DP but for Fukunaga to do it himself.
In preparation for playing The Commandant Idris Elba, exercised less, put on a few pounds, grew out his beard and shaved the front of his hair to suggest a receding hairline because he wanted his character to be rough-looking and out of shape, to distinguish him from the usual handsome, fit, well-groomed characters he often played.
Cary Joji Fukunaga based the look of the film on the work of photojournalists. Some scenes are reminiscent of the work of photographer Tim Hetherington's coverage of the Second Liberian Civil War, which was featured in the documentary Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington (2013).
First non-documentary feature film distributed primarily by a streaming service (Netflix) to be nominated for major film awards. Idris Elba received Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild Awards. Abraham Attah also received a Critics Choice nomination for his performance. However, due to the Academy's years long bias at the time against the non-theatrical distribution model of Netflix and other streaming platforms, the film received no Oscar nominations. It wasn't until Mudbound (2017) that a non-documentary streaming film (also Netflix) received nominations in major categories (or in any category for that matter) at the Academy Awards.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The little colorful packets sewn all over the child soldiers' clothes represent good-luck tokens made by the medicine men in the brainwashing scene. Essentially, they're being told the medicine men's powerful ju-ju will protect the kids from bullets. Similarly, the white thing that the Commandant swishes around in one scene is related to indigenous magic.
The scene in which the colors change from green to red was based on the look of infrared film. This scene was inspired by The Enclave, a film and photography project that was shot in the Congo by Richard Mosse.