Home > Film, Politics, Reviews > Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012; Directed by Benh Zeitlin)

The artistic reproduction of the terms of a stereotype, marginalizing though it can be, is often enough a necessary feature of the accurate representation of common lived experience. We do fervently hope that members of minority communities attempt and manage to overcome the archetypal representations that pigeonhole and ghettoize them, and that popular representations of this struggle make every effort to follow suit. But we must likewise be cognizant that despite our progressive utopian hopes to the contrary, oft-circulated stereotypes can just as surely apply as archetypes of cultural difference and distinctness. To assert this is not to absolve stereotypical representations of a negative nature, nor does it excuse “politically incorrect” discriminatory humour or commentary that enshrines these stereotypes as limiting absolutes or markers of inherent inferiority. But it does compel a qualified recognition that depicting certain specific subcultural elements need not be preconditioned by bigotry.

This might serve as a useful preamble to Beasts of the Southern Wild, a critically-acclaimed independent film with a moving, transcendent artistic vision built on a foundation of aesthetic stereotypes of African-Americans from the Deep South. Prominent African-American academic bell hooks (the lower-case is intentional, and pretentious) took the film to task for its reproduction of racially-coded gender archetypes, the associations it draws between poverty and the natural state, and (most ludicrously) its “eroticization” of its child star, the Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis (six years old during filming, nine years old now). What hooks fails to realize, and what a limited popular audience has encouragingly embraced, is that Beasts of the Southern Wild finds hope, redemption, and profound human connection in cultural qualities that can be cynically labeled as stereotypes.

Directed by Benh Zeitlin (though credited to his filmmaking collective Court 13) and based on a one-act play by Lucy Alibar (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Zeitlin), Beasts has been labeled magic realism for its fanciful but gritty depiction of life in coastal Louisiana. Set in a waterlogged bayou community referred to as the Bathtub, the film is perhaps more properly generically titled a fantasy, although elements of magic realism and Southern gothic are certainly active as well. The naturalistic Wallis is the protagonist and narrator Hushpuppy, who dwells alongside her rough-edged father Wink (Dwight Henry) in the Bathtub; they have separate houses since the death of the girl’s mother (shown in a brief, sexualized flashback, commemorated by her daughter with a ratty old Chicago Bulls jersey, and associated with fried crocodile meat).

Hushpuppy learns from her shaman-esque schoolteacher about climate change, melting ice caps, and other less-scientific whispers of impending doom for her community. She, Wink, and their rustic fellow Bathtubbers endure a fire, a furious storm and subsequent flood, relocation by a FEMA-like government agency, and life-threatening disease, all without losing their determination, loyalty to their home and their way of life, and essential sense of joy and happiness. It’s a self-evident, only slightly metaphorical representation of the region’s post-Katrina social reality, although it carries the current state of deprivation several degrees (or decades) further. The production design takes on a post-apocalyptic Mad Max­-style visual character, in particular with details like Wink’s fishing boat, which is crafted out of the rear box of a pickup truck.

Whimsically-fashioned mundanity aside, none of this evokes a genuinely fantastical element (indeed, it is all too real). The imaginative aspect is left to the foreboding intermittent sequences of aurochs, elephant-sized prehistoric wild boars (rather than the actual historic aurochs, a species of large cattle that went extinct in 17th Century Poland) that come unstuck from thawing polar ice and rampage through interstitial inserts, smashing edifices and tearing at unseen bodies. Their import remains mysterious until near the film’s conclusion, when they arrive in the wetlands of the Bathtub. The aurochs are juxtaposed with Hushpuppy and other determined children stampeding towards their homes; the children are constructed by this direct association as wild animals, surviving as the titular beasts in a natural, pre-civilization (or post-civilization, or extra-civilization) setting. Indeed, when the literal beasts come face-to-face with the figurative beast, they recognize her as one of their own, even bowing on their knees as if to a queen.

“I gotta take care of mine,” she tells them in her Louisianan patois. This is the core theme of Beasts of the Southern Wild: taking care of your people. This pervading and affecting sense of communality trumps academically-minded readings of the film as disseminating the discourse of marginalization. Hushpuppy narrates her fundamentally Gaian thoughts of the world as a delicately-balanced system of interrelations, where even the weakest, poorest, or least productive cogs in the complex machine are required in order to maintain homeostasis. This is a stance expressed not only in ecological but also in political and social terms. The Bathtub is cut off from the wider, wealthier world by a levee, and when it floods, Wink and his fellow residents blow a hole in this boundary to let the waters drain away. To allow for healing, divisions must be removed, forcibly if necessary. Beasts of the Southern Wild may contain superficial stereotypes, but just a bit deeper down, it’s a virtuosic cinematic argument for a responsible and compassionate society that provides and cares for those who need it the most, not because it makes us feel better, but because it simply makes us better.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

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