I can’t tell you about this movie without telling you about my father.
My father liked to pop out his false teeth while laughing to increase the fun. He laughed a lot. He used to sing me Rod Stewart songs and impersonate Elvis. He was Southern, black, and an alcoholic. He could be rageful, and when he was rageful, he could be violent.
When I saw Dwight Henry’s Wink casually pull a raw chicken out of a cooler with a fire poker and drop it onto a make-shift grill in his first appearance as Hushpuppy’s father in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I felt like I recognized him. My false-teeth father once built a grill from found stones in my backyard. When I saw Beast’s Wink begin to drink and rage, I recognized that too.
Maybe you were hoping this review would start off with the scoop on prodigious newcomer to the screen, Quevenzhané Wallis, who plays 4-year-old Hushpuppy. Maybe you were hoping for the “it could happen to me” feeling we all get when we read about people walking off the street and into serious critical accolades. Right now, maybe you’re thinking what I was thinking for the duration of director Benh Zeitlin’s first feature-length film – This is not what I expected.
What I expected was something, as my friend Jewels put it, “Like Where the Wild Things Are, but in the south, with black people.” I thought the film would be about a rag-tag group of children riding wild beasts and building rafts and facing unimaginably terrifying, horrifying obstacles. The kind of obstacles that fail to terrify and horrify us because they are so fantastic that we know they are not real.
But Beasts of the Southern Wild gets really real, really quick. The opening scene is an aerial view of Bathtub, the fictional Louisiana settlement where Beasts takes place. Mossy rippling water stretches wide, held back by a levee on one side. Out in the middle of all that water, there is Bathtub: lush with greenery, lush with the ingenuity of hand-build boats and homes, and lush with the magic that keeps it above water. Simultaneously, we hear the voice of four-year-old Hushpuppy: “They built the wall that cuts us off. They think we gon drown down here. Be we aint goin nowhere.”
Right then, you know that the ghosts of Katrina are going to be with you for the whole rest of the film. Right then, you start thinking about all those children who really did drown.
Hushpuppy continues to introduce us to her life and the town of Bathtub. She lives in her own trailer, raised up on barrels and smudged with silt were water has risen and retreated. A few hundred feet away her father lives in a stilted wooden one-room structure with an open front. When that raw chicken I told you about gets juicy and golden he rings a bell for “feed up time”, and Hushpuppy comes running along with all the animals in their care for a family meal.
Then Hushpuppy tells us about the universe, how there is a certain way it fits together and how if something gets broken or falls out of place the whole thing will fall apart, and we see images of icebergs crashing into the ocean. (A reference to global warming and the theory that it is in part to blame for Katrina?) Then she tells us about how she can understand what birds say, and we see her holding a small bird to her ear like a cellphone, listening.
This is the moment you realize the film is going to be beautiful, even if it is terrifying, and full of real ghosts. Every color in the film seems to come from nature. A re-purposed plastic milk jug is yellowed to the color of the grubs Hushpuppy finds wriggling on the underside of a leaf, the faded blue of the truck bed Wink has turned into a boat looks as if it were painted with a brush dipped in the wide Louisiana sky.
But then, Wink disappears. Hushpuppy is left on her own, and eats cat food to survive while she waits for Wink to return. I think of the families struggling to feed themselves in the food deserts of Oakland, where I live. It’s too real. But this is also the point in the film where the tension between reality and fantasy begins to pull apart the narrative. The people of Bathtub ask if Hushpuppy is doing all right, but Hushpuppy pushes them off and they leave her alone. For a dark fantastic story of a child-hero, this is appropriate. But real talk: people in broke communities take care of each other, especially southern ones. That child would not have been eating cat food, no matter how independent she was. They would have had her eating chicken and thinking it was her own idea.
After an undefined protracted period, (a few days? a fortnight?) Wink returns, appearing as quickly as he disappeared, in a hospital gown, disoriented and angry. He screams at Hushpuppy and hits her. We see him drinking a lot from this point on in a way that suggests it is not a new habit since returning from the hospital. And here’s where my heart tanked with disappointment. Besides fantastic beast-riding, the other thing I’d been expecting from the film was a positive father-daughter relationship. A vanguard non-violent image of a black father. And yet, here we go again with the Angry Violent Black Daddy.
Of course there is such a thing as the Angry Violent Black Daddy outside of stereotype. I know, I had one. And it isn’t that Zeitlin leaves Wink’s character flat – there are many moments of tenderness between Hushpuppy and Wink throughout the film. It’s just that, a white man writing and directing an AVBD makes me uncomfortable. It gives me the queasy-uneasy all in my belly. From Birth of a Nation up to the present moment, white filmmakers have been presenting black people and blackness in ways that reify and justify oppression of black people and all others. A white man envisioning and directing a grown and muscular dark-skinned black man beating on and screaming at a little girl makes me uncomfortable; I’m not afraid to say I think it ought to make you uncomfortable too.
I tried to build my own levee against the memories of my tender/angry father and sterotype panic, but the combination broke me open. I started crying, and didn’t stop for the rest of the film. I find it embarrassing to cry in public, and was secretly thankful that others were even more undone than I was. No one noticed my stoic trickles with all the sniffling and open-mouth gasping that was going on in that theater.
Things got better and worse when Hushpuppy’s deceased mother was introduced through a flashback. She is naked save her white panties, which are splattered in blood as she has just finished shooting a gator. On the “better” end, my first reaction to this image was, “HELL YEAH! There is nothing more bad-ass than killing a gator with your tits out. That’s the kind of lady I’d like to roll with.”
But for the worse, I began to think about the historical and contemporary sexualization of black women’s bodies. I can’t honestly find any reason why this instance of a white guy giving us a black mother character who is defined from minute one by her sexuality is somehow OK.
Zeitlin says his motivation for this film was to show “how through a culture that’s joyous and celebratory and fierce, you can really defy death.” I believe him. In interviews he talks about the film in the loving, obsessed way of a new parent. Talking with The Hollywood Reporter, he had this to say about making Beasts:
….You have to then sort of find this spontaneity in the performance of the actual crew who’s up against a lot of the same elements that the characters are up against and it becomes almost like an athletic performance that the actual crew does in order to capture the film. And so I think that what that gains is you know, instead of this very delicate, perfect thing that ends up on screen, it ends up having all this muscle in it, you know? It has all this wet in it, and it has all these mosquito bites on it, and it’s almost like a painting that’s got a ton of paint chunks on it and texture to it and it just has a different kind of quality that tastes different, you know it’s not — it’s not like the same meal that you have a whole bunch of times. It’s made differently and there’s a flavor to it that you only get with spontaneity.
I am a true admirer of Zeitlin’s vision and artistry in Beasts. Immediately upon exiting the theater, all I could say was that the film “gave me a lot of feelings,” which I think is a testament to the complexity and beauty of his storytelling. It the representations had been all negative, I would have left the theater angry. If they had been all sentimental, I’d have left feeling only manipulated. Instead, I was thoughtful, confused, and most of all affected. After letting the film settle in my mind a bit, I see Zeitlin as a sort of Steinbeck: a man who has told a beautiful story about a people he has great admiration and compassion for, but who’s outsider status ultimately defeats his good intentions in critical ways.
Please read carefully: I am not implying that people are not allowed to tell stories about communities they are not from, full stop. What I am saying is that it’s possible to have great intentions, make a beautiful film, and still be interacting problematically with trope and stereotype. And I’m saying that no matter how beautiful and necessary the film is – and this one is – it doesn’t make up for the fact that oppressed people rarely get to tell their own stories, even in independent film.
As for my expectations, I am both glad and disappointed that they were toppled. As I said, I was expecting better than the old angry-man/whore-woman dichotomy, and that was disheartening. But in the case of my expectations of fanciful not-real horror, it is to Zeitlin’s credit that I did not get them fulfilled. Katrina is no biblical flood story that can be put on as a church pageant.
In the end, I find myself wondering how this film is playing in the 9th ward. I may have a deep sense of political solidarity with that community, but I don’t have any blood ties or personal relationship to it and I wish I could hear their myriad voices in response to this.
I do know what my father would have thought. If he were still alive, and I were still a child, he would have picked up Wink’s “You the Man!” parenting tag-line and used it to beef up my confidence. He would have played Beasts of the Southern Wild with me, pretending to be a prehistoric buffalo-pig while I rode on his back, fighting the terrifying, horrifying obstacles that came my way.