On Beasts in the Wilderness

Beasts of the Southern Wild has been the only movie to make me wail like a newborn.  This was not a sad, defeated wail.  It was a cry of pure joy.  I loved this movie and I care deeply about whether or not it wins an Academy Award tonight, how far its young actress, Quvenzhane Wallis, will go in her career, and how it’s perceived by those from NOLA who experienced Hurricane Katrina firsthand.  Conversely, I don’t like that I loved it within the context of all things heirarchical, and all the other isms that exist in the world. 

Here’s why:  New Orleans and Haiti are two extremely spiritually charged Vodou centers.  The winds in these two places are Vodou’s breath.  Two disasters have claimed bodies here; one with raging wind and water (Hurricane Katrina), the other with a parting earth (1.12.10 earthquake). 

Beasts creator Benh Zeitlin has “assembled a new myth out of Hurricane Katrina.”  And I suppose a new myth out of Haiti’s earthquake is not too far behind. Oh, wait.  A YA novel about Haitian boy during the earthquake and the spirit of Toussaint L’ouverture, In Darkness by Nick Lake, is the recent winner of the Printz Award. 

Some folks were very critical of Beasts, with good reason.  And sharp reasoning and critical thinking skills were required to peel away at Beasts of the Southern Wild to get to the meat and bones of what this movie was really conveying.

Taking from what others have written:
1.       Poverty porn. 
2.       Pickaninny stereotype. 
3.       White male gaze. 
All wrapped within a thin layer of tragic cinematographic beauty.  And I still loved it!  This dichotomy or hypocrisy is problematic.  But it’s okay.  I’m not in a mental space right now (grad school overload) to adequately give a sharp-witted and concise review of exactly what was so intriguing about this film or a response to each of the criticisms above.  What I offer instead is a series of questions and musings on the larger metaphors the film has presented.  It resonated with me on so many levels.  And yet, I find each of the scathing reviews criticizing the story and its creators to be somewhat true and accurate.  I’ve seen Beasts three times—each with a different eye (yes, including the third one).  One for the artistry and beauty; another with a critical gaze of who was telling the story, for what purpose, and to what end; and the third for a purely intuitive response. 
 On Beasts

Who were the beasts?  The residents of Bathtub?  Hushpuppy and little wild-haired, underfed, and abandoned children like her?  The pre-historical aurochs breaking past the icy barriers of time to take revenge on the lowest rung on the human hierarchy? 

Initially, for me, the beasts were every dark, evil thing that has ever walked the earth—in animal form, human form, spirit form, in the form of ideas—this monstrous thing that has preyed on the least amongst us since the dawn of time.  I’m a poet.  I live for metaphors and symbolic truth.  I bend reason, twist and turn it sometimes, to fit it into a deeper meaning.

Hushpuppy was able to face this evil that threatened her life and the life of those she loved.  She literally looked it in the eye and it bowed to her. This was when I bawled.  Here was this character—a little girl, black, poor, the ultimate underdog—and here was this primordial creature come back to life to wreak havoc on the planet (metaphor for climate change, I guess), and it bowed to her.  She looked it in the eye and was like get-out-my-way-cause-I’ve-got-to-take-care-of-mine.  Climate change and racism and oppression and poverty and corporate greed be damned.  She still had to LIVE.  There was no room for fear.  There was no room for tears.  (“The hyper-masculinity of the black girl-child,” someone wrote.)

Well, okay. This message could’ve been conveyed without the poor child walking around in her underwear, sharing food with pigs, and her daddy slapping her around.  But…
 Wilderness

I’ve never been to Cite Soleil or La Saline, Haiti.  There are others all over the world.  What the media calls squalors, dumps, slums. 

I’ve been to Port-au-Prince where I had to use a plastic bucket of water to flush a toilet.  Try doing that in the dark where much needed electricity is constantly stolen from you without warning.  This is nothing compared to…anything.  This wasn’t dire poverty, or course.  This was the reality of history, access to technology, corrupt governments, etc.  You live.  You make do.  You still have to eat.

Hunger.  To not see the possibility of a meal around the bend of tomorrow is maddening.  There’s no room for reasoning here.  The daily labor of literally providing a home, gathering scraps of discarded things, finding and making food, a living, is taxing on the body.  Tender moments of affection seep through the cracks like dripping rain.  Abandonment is “gone to look for work, to find food”. 

This is the wilderness of poverty where nothing is tamed and placid and cultivated. 

On Wild Things

 UNICEF Photo of the Year 2008 by Alice Smeets.
Beasts of a Haitian Wild

 

Me.  Les Cayes, Haiti.  Wild, yes.  But home within my village, loved and cared for.  I remember wilderness.  Beasts reminded me of that place, buried in my memory, and my mother’s perhaps, of hurricane winds and nothing but mangos for weeks in rural Haiti.  And a village. 

 What do you offer as empowerment to a black girl-child who sees nothing but scarcity around her?

Ultimately, who controls these stories?  Who wields these mythologies out into our collective dream psyches?  How are other narratives being exalted so that there is a balance of art and truth?  We are so starved for images that (initially) seem to present us in a powerful and magical light, that we will swallow whole whatever is fed to us. 

What this presents is the idea of poverty as normative for a certain demographic.  This is what Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi describes as the “single story;” the single story that places the black girl heroine in the most inhumane and dire circumstances.  The question that all stories must answer to break out of the confines of this monolithic narrative is how does our heroine ultimately reign supreme over everything that’s been handed to her?  This has to be done delicately, with unwavering empathy, and with a critical eye towards social hierarchy in all forms. 
Do we tame the wild things, or allow them to embrace their idea of freedom?  And this is also a question for all artists in general.  What stories do we tell?  And who, ultimately, has the means and resources to tell them?
Haiti, Mythology

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