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By Stephane Dunn | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013.

Practice saying this name and remember it: Quvenzhané Wallis. At nine years old, she is Oscar’s youngest nominee ever for best actress. Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed in Mississippi and set in southern Louisiana, is Benh Zeitlin’s debut film, and this year’s little film that could. It’s nominated best director, screenplay, and best picture as well. I was intrigued by the title and trailer alone as it began to pick up steam in the afterglow of Sundance. I had some ambivalence too after exploring the synopsis and getting a glimpse. I went to see it alone one weekend afternoon in the fall. Two things became very clear in the first few minutes. Little Ms. Wallis, then only six years old, was absolutely mesmerizing; I literally could not take my eyes off her. And secondly, [I predicted] audiences would find it challenging to read, beautiful and haunting or extremely disturbing or an uneasy mix of all three as I did.

Zeitlin’s story about a fiercely proud, flawed father raising his daughter Hush Puppy [Mom has either abandoned them or died] in the squalor of the Bayou left devastated by the hurricane dares to play with symbolism and montage – a risky mix in our blockbuster, narrative happy, Hollywood film culture. In a larger sense,  Beasts portrays a fiercely proud community’s challenge, even mocking, of the power of the hurricane and the levees. It is a community that clings admirably and blindly in some ways to a cultural identity and way of life inseparable from its geographical roots in the ‘Bathtub’ in southern Lousiana. The film does not unfold as an entreaty to help the still struggling Bayou – though certainly it highlights and reminds us of the storm’s inescapable devastation and trauma on the people. Instead, it tries to challenge what will presumably be our reading of the people and their home – dysfunctional, inappropriate, ignorant, needy etc. It doesn’t achieve this completely successfully as its dogged representation of the squalor and traumatized landscape almost overwhelms the film. It opens with shots highlighting the environment – the trash, the overladen shacks the daughter and father call home then settles on baby faced Wallis, wild haired and bare foot in a ratty shirt and underwear.

If these visuals throughout the film aren’t enough, the depiction of the father Wink – played utterly unrelenting and arrestingly by real-life bakery owner and newcomer to film, Dwight Henry, and the father and daughter’s relationship is enough to raise inevitable questions and invoke disturbance alone. The father is rough, harsh really; he pushes beyond what could be comfortably considered as tough love for the sake of toughening up his little girl for her survival. The little girl has to be at once submissive to him and dependent on him for food and shelter and protection yet extremely independent and self-efficient, and almost maternal in her stewardship of an ailing, emotionally inconsistent father. This, along with the provocative title ‘wild beasts of the southern wild’ and the stark physical portrayals was bound to illicit questions and charges. Does it exploit Hushpuppy, misrepresent the culture, the people, and the misfortune the hurricane brought on?  Does it demonize poor people, especially African Americans, black men and, black fathers in particular and show black folk culture in a negative manner? Is the film merely an exhibition of white liberal glamorization of poverty – an easy charge to a film that privileges the stark neglect and lack characterizing the material lives of Wink, Hushpuppy and the other Bathtub inhabitants?”   

African American audiences are understandably sensitive about film imagery of black fathers and black parenting in general since they are and have been demonized and associated with pathology and family dysfunction for so long. Buzz about a film depicting a “bad” or abusive black father can immediately put many African American viewers on the defensive and keep them away from a film as Precious, despite industry applause, and films before have proven. If the film has a white director then the scrutiny and concern intensifies.

Back in September, bell hooks, a cultural critic who has blessedly never shied away from telling it like she sees a film, critically acclaimed or not, took on the film in “No Love in the Wild,” observing that critics by and large were carried away applauding the wholesale endorsement of the film’s “compelling cinematography, the magical realism, and the poetics of space.” She argues that the film’s vibrancy is fueled by its   “crude pornography of violence.”  The film, she goes on, reinforces “patriarchal masculinity” as the Bathtub is a natural universe where the people are one with nature and the men, represented by the father, are unquestioned. Her charges are bolstered by the implications of the language – as Wink’s model of toughness is clearly gendered masculine and it is this he certainly tries to instill in his daughter. His highest praise of her is, hooks reminds us, “You’re the man.”    

Beasts of the Southern Wild is indeed arresting poetry – visually – at points too much to the neglect of the story’s development. It reminds me of a point that hooks made about films years ago: A film can have strikingly conservative and radical elements. Beasts has troubling politics of representation as hooks argued insightfully and passionately. Yet, I would argue too, that despite other criticism to the contrary, it doesn’t merely indulge in mythologizing the moral dignity of poverty but rather wants to suggest the very real resilience of the human and cultural spirit of people in the midst of suffering and who are unapologetically proud of being folks whose identity is inextricable from their Louisiana, hurricane ridden, homeland and who would rather die rather than abandon that tie. The casting of non-actors from Louisiana helps to convey that genuine ethos.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is problematic and cinematically striking. It is an interesting piece of filmmaking with stunning performances, especially from Wallis and Henry. It does not go down easy; it presents an opportunity to extend the critical dialogue about the implications of cultural and class representations which Hurricane Katrina stirred up and beyond that to engage how it participates in the legacy of black male and female representation. Up until now, in contrast to the highly engaged Django, Beasts of the Southern Wild, hasn’t received nearly enough black critical consideration, whether enthusiastic or not, and has flown a little under the radar with popular movie loving African American viewers and not out of just ambivalence about the possible politics but the style as well as a film that registered perhaps as being artsy. Like The Help, it is being legitimized by Oscar, maybe the nominations will help fuel more black critical discussion about the film. Whether we see Beasts of the Southern Wild and engage it or not, a six year old black girl has made it a history making moment.


Stephane Dunn, PhD, is a writer and Co-Director of the Film, Television, & Emerging Media Studies program at Morehouse College. She is the author of the 2008 book, Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas : Black Power Action Films (U of Illinois Press), which explores the representation of race, gender, and sexuality in the Black Power and feminist influenced explosion of black action films in the early 1970s, including, Sweetback Sweetback’s Baad Assssss Song, Cleopatra Jones, and Foxy Brown. Her writings have appeared in Ms., The Chronicle of Higher Education, TheRoot.com, AJC, CNN.com, and Best African American Essays, among others. Her most recent work includes articles about contemporary black film representation and Tyler Perry films.

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