The Idealization of the Primitive: Beasts of the Southern Wild

By Daniel Garrett

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Court 13/Fox Searchlight, 2012

Films of remarkable craft with questionable content are troubling for the individual observer, and stimulating for film culture: which is most important, how something looks or what it means? Benh Zeitlin’s imaginative motion picture Beasts of the Southern Wild looks good, moves well, and focuses on a group of people who relish their own elemental, rough way of living. In one scene, a man attempts to teach a girl, Hushpuppy, how to open and eat crab using a utensil before her father Wink tells her to put down the silver and use her hands and the assembled crowd watch and chant “Beast it, beast it, beast it.” The gathered group, the beasts of the film’s title, glory in the simple. What does one make of a community living on the edge of a great civilization but apart from it, a community that accepts and celebrates the primitive? The film Beasts of the Southern Wild began as a play by Lucy Alibar, Juicy and Delicious, about a father and his young son, both Caucasian, and the father’s lessons for survival, but in the film those two theatrical figures have been transformed into a young girl and her father, both African-American. The story is set in the American south, in the watery land of southern Louisiana, focused on the small family and its multicultural community living a hand-to-mouth existence in the wilderness, affirming self-reliance. They have made homes out of old things, but they eat well the bounty of nature—chicken, catfish, shrimp, crab, crawfish, and alligator. The community is both admirable and frightening. Does the observer accept their standards, or impose one’s own standards, on what he (or she) sees? The film Beasts of the Southern Wild may be the most persuasive portrait of sublime horror: a film that can inspire admiration for exile, loss, and madness is dangerous.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) live in the southern wilderness, each in a separate but nearby ramshackle home. Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as Wink have an elemental integrity and intensity that fill the screen and demand respect; and he has a scarred handsomeness, but she is too fierce to seem easily pretty. While the filmmaking technique blends the abstract, the poetic, and the realistic, the human form in front of the camera is other; and the primitive, which is a primary feature of the film, calls to our instincts; and the lack of sophisticated intellectual rigor in character, dialogue, story, and plot can convince one of authenticity when it is merely simplicity. Hushpuppy’s father Wink refers to her as man, a slippage of gender identification that may suggest how capable, even tough, he expects her to be within this dangerous terrain of alligators and hurricanes. These people who feast and parade are bounded by a levee that helps the mainland, but threatens their existence. “They built the wall that cuts us off. They think we’re all going to drown out here, but we ain’t going nowhere,” claims Hushpuppy, who later does acknowledge—a contradiction—that one day the water will rise and cover her community. Hushpuppy has a sense of everything fitting together in the world, something that indicates she accepts where she is in the world (children often do); and that exemplifies acceptance of life on the margin of the world.

Hushpuppy is imaginative, and she is curious about the language of the animals and birds around her; and Hushpuppy takes out a jersey she identifies with her absent mother and speaks in the direction of that absent figure, rehearsing life lessons; and she draws and cooks (lighting a stove wearing a helmet and using a blowtorch). She is angered and worried but resolute when her father Wink disappears—imagining she might have to start eating her pets—but angry still when he returns wearing clothing she does not recognize, a hospital gown and bracelet. She lights a blazing fire in her own dwelling, and she hits her now raging, worried father on his chest and wishes him dead after he slaps her: her wish is a violation of their bond, a breaking of the perceived order of her universe: it is an example of the belief that one’s own moral error can affect the atmosphere of the world. That moment is rhymed with glaciers falling, melting. A storm warning is received in the community—a land called the Bathtub, similar to how New Orleans is often referred to as a bowl—but Hushpuppy’s father and some of his friends refuse to leave. As the rain and thunder pound, Wink drunkenly takes out a gun to shoot the storm and reassure his daughter. Giant, hairy horned ancient beasts—aurochs—begin to rise out of the ice. Meanwhile, following the storm is the flood and damage of homes. The saltwater threatens the wildlife. Hushpuppy’s father and his friends go to blast an opening in the levee to relieve the flooding of their community; and Hushpuppy pulls the trigger on the crude alligator-shaped bomb. However, government officials insist on evacuation, but these people do not take well to town living, to order and supervision. Hushpuppy’s ill father Wink goes home to die. The aurochs rampage through settlements.

There is an excursion that Hushpuppy goes on that might be real or it might be a dream: with other girls, Hushpuppy goes seeking her mother, first swimming and then getting a ride on a boat with a captain speaking mysticism or nonsense, depending on one’s perspective, a ride to a floating club called Elysian Fields, which could be a vulgar folk dream of heaven. The women in the club, who usually dance with men, dance with the children. One woman—Hushpuppy’s mother?—cuts, seasons, and fries alligator; and the woman, who says she cannot take care of anyone but herself, tells Hushpuppy that life is not easy, Hushpuppy has to be responsible, and may as well smile.

The aurochs arrive at the community. Hushpuppy, who has been listening for the language of other beings, faces the large creatures, beast to beast, without fear, and they turn away. Her father Wink dies, and there is a ceremony; and Hushpuppy says she can feel the things she has known in the air around her.

II.

“I feel like in the majority of black films there’s exploitation. The black characters are exploited. People of color are. That’s a reason why a lot of us got into film—because there were these distorted images of black people…”

—film director Charles Burnett to James Ponsoldt in 2007, from the book Charles Burnett Interviews

(University Press of Mississippi, 2011; page 158)

“…It comes as no surprise then, that the mirror of abjection reserved for African-Americans stands in dialectical, contrast to its coefficient, the mirror of affirmation, the mass-mediated reflection into which Euro-Americans gaze in confirmation of their national identities, skin color entitlements and implicit sense of superiority…”

—film scholar Ed Guerrero, “Bamboozled” in Contemporary Black American Cinema

(Routledge, 2012; page 112)

“In contemporary culture, the bodies of all those black women abandoned and lost, disappeared and dead in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, let the world know that the black female body is not worthy of salvation. It is an image of genocide.”

—cultural critic Bell Hooks, “Talking Trash: A Dialogue about Crash” in Writing Beyond Race

(Routledge, 2012; page 107)

There are ideas and insights, and stories and symbols, in the works of artists of the African diaspora, particularly in the work of African-American writers, regarding knowledge and ignorance, tradition and modernity, and individuality and community: and the works of James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, David Bradley, William Demby, Ralph Ellison, Percival Everett, Lorraine Hansberry, Michael Harper, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Johnson, Edward P. Jones, Gayl Jones, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Martha Southgate, Michael Thomas, Henry Van Dyke, Alice Walker, John A. Williams, August Wilson, and Richard Wright present essays, novels, plays, and poetry exploring the complexities and contradictions of identity, and how perception can be contrasted with fact, and the understanding of fact broadened by truth. Ernest Gaines is one Louisiana writer who has written stories encompassing the complexity, dignity, passion, and quest for opportunity and justice of African-Americans in the American south. Yet, the young Jewish film director Benh Zeitlin chose to make a film set in Louisiana and featuring characters who are African-American based on a one-act play that originally focused on a Caucasian father and son in Georgia, written by a white woman, once a resident of Florida and now a resident of New York, Lucy Alibar, inspired by her relationship to her own father and his survival lessons and later illness. Lucy Alibar, a childhood friend of Benh Zeitlin whom Alibar met as part of a theatrical competition and training project, described to Elle magazine’s Steve Friedman her father’s grilling Alibar and her two brothers on how to react if a stranger asked them to get in his car, recommending they resist and risk dying in the street rather than being killed in some other, more obscure place. Lucy Alibar, as well, has named as writers she admired William Faulkner, Cynthia Hopkins, Stephen King, Lynn Nottage, Eudora Welty, Bailey White, Kevin Wilson and Lisa D’Amour. Why did Benh Zeitlin set the story in Louisiana? The director Zeitlin claims he was attracted to the landscape, and the joy and determination of the people there, and their potential for community; and from perceptions of actual places he created an ideal site, the Bathtub: “In the Bathtub, age doesn’t divide people, religion doesn’t divide people, money and politics don’t divide people,” Zeitlin told the online site Cinema Review, a report accessible online in year 2012. It is a portrayal of a wholly unified community that actually does not exist, of course: anyone who knows Louisiana knows that there are cultural conflicts despite the cultural sharing—and conflicts about the very things Zeitlin names.

It is not new or rare to have sophisticated people—and Zeitlin is the son of folklorists—see the rather simple ways of others through the eyes of romance or condescension. Benh Zeitlin admitted to Cinema Review, “We wanted to take all those lines between people and pull them out so there’s nothing but unity in this community. This is not a literal interpretation of any place in Louisiana, but it is definitely inspired by Louisiana because you feel that potential here.” The film is a fantasy about life, history, and science, but it is not received entirely as such: its images resonate. The film Beasts of the Southern Wild is a story of family and community, and it is also a fantasy: in it a group of ancient creatures, buried in ice, return to roam the land and threaten the people. That tremendous event follows the young girl Hushpuppy’s disappointment in and anger with her father Wink, when Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) strikes Wink’s (Dwight Henry’s) chest and wishes him dead: it is a breaking of authority, love, and trust. Does the monstrous often follow familial transgression? Hushpuppy recognizes the breaking and is not surprised that trouble will follow—and she understands that makes her more responsible, not less. Hushpuppy is able to meet the challenge of the ancient animals that have returned, an amazing thing, the dream power of childhood.

Dreams can inspire reality. Imagination can inspire art. However, it is to be remembered that the rigors of reason sometimes are experienced as a discipline, a restriction, and an instinctive rebellion can occur. Instead of reason, emphasis can be placed on emotion, with preference given to experiences of excess and extremity. It is impossible not to think of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild as an embodiment of the social other, the eccentric, and the strange: and the other can be celebrated or dismissed for its difference. Beasts, its script developed by Alibar and Zeitlin at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, received the 2012 Camera d’Or for the best first feature, and it has been championed by Oprah Winfrey, to whom the film had received a recommendation from Barack Obama, the nation’s leading film fan. In July 2012, the Denver Post’s film critic Lisa Kennedy compared the film to the work of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Walt Whitman. For anyone who cares about discerning details, that acclaim is depressing. Although the look of the film, its performances, and its allusions to, or explorations of, topics of importance—community, family, race, gender, environmental disasters, illness, homelessness, and evolution—incline one to give the film the benefit of the doubt, its ultimate meaning remains troubling. Confusion is not complexity; and, as writer Matt Singer (July 24, 2012 IndieWire) has reported, writers such as Tim Grierson of Deadspin, Adam Nayman of Cinema Scope, Ben Kenigsberg of Time Out Chicago, and Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post have remarked on the film’s narrative clichés, and its use of a child’s perspective as an excuse for superficiality, and the fact of communal pleasure and pride as possible justification for conservative political indifference to the poor, as well as the focus on the exotic as evidence of cultural tourism. The online site Film Drunk’s Vince Mancini declared, “But if you can see past the craft, this tale of deep south swamp hobos and feral children that eat cat food has all the depth of one of those Levis slam poetry commercials. I thought we weren’t supposed to fall for the Magic Negro and the Noble Savage anymore? Yet here it is, a whole movie full of them, plus folksy Cajuns who can’t open their mouths without homespun crypticisms aw shucksing their way out” (December 3, 2012). With shrewd impatience, Mancini drew attention to the bizarre vanity of Hushpuppy’s expectation that her story would survive her community’s great isolation and destruction; and the questionable act of her father Wink catching fish with his bare hands, and teaching her to do that; and, again, the movie’s poetic gloss as a cover for a lack of depth and logic. Indeed, at worse, it is possible to read the film Beasts of the Southern Wild as a betrayal of African-American history and ambition, of the ongoing quest for full citizenship and knowledge, liberty, and opportunity. In the past, it has been possible to erase or sabotage the African-American quest for freedom and self-determination with disrespect, mockery, slander, misunderstanding actual or pretended, disqualification, lack of support, and failure of personal or professional association, as well as systematic exploitation and brutal violence; but now the same low status can be affirmed with images and words of admiration and pleasure.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.

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