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The Racism of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Every couple of years a movie comes along that exposes the sorry state of contemporary film criticism. I’m not talking about the Jackass franchise or anything starring Danny McBride. I mean the sort of sentimental claptrap that sends otherwise sensible people into raptures of moral self-satisfaction. Dances with Wolves or Crash, for example, both of which rode white liberal guilt like a hobbyhorse all the way to the Oscars. Or, most recently: Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that deploys a casual racism, vilifies public health workers, and romanticizes poverty.

Loosely adapted from a one-act play by Lucy Alibar and directed by Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who scamps around in her undies with a group of proud outcasts on the wrong side of the Louisiana bayous. Nobody in this jungley spit of land they call The Bathtub appears to work. Or bathe. Or feed their children. Hushpuppy is mostly left to fend for herself, eating cat food and living in total squalor. Though her father, Wink, complains that he has to worry about her “all the damn time,” mostly he drinks, trashes his shack, and fires his rifle for the hell of it. “I’ma bust your ass,” he shouts, and then does just that—smacking his daughter hard across the face. Far from deploring the abuse and neglect, the film ennobles her father. For he is dying, and it is therefore his solemn duty to “prepare his daughter for an uncertain future,” as A. O. Scott puts it. 

The film probably won’t win any of the four Academy Awards it’s been nominated for—too much Oscar-bait stand in its way—but the festival favorite has already earned its share of culturally pretentious awards, including something called the Humanitas Prize for work that “explores the human condition in a nuanced, meaningful way.” 1 Critics across the board have gushed. “Let’s all agree: This movie is a blast of sheer, improbable joy,” writes Scott. Drinking their days away, none of them working, yet supposedly bound by a principled ethic of libertarian solidarity, the grownup residents of The Bathtub are “wise, unpretentious and self-reliant,” Scott adds. To The New Yorker’s David Denby, these wastrels are “determined to hold on to their miserable piece of earth, which, for them—and for us, as art—is as close to paradise as anyone could imagine.” 2 (By these lights, so was Jonestown.) Newsday’s Rafer Guzman praises Wink’s “excellent parenting skills.” 3

In short, Beasts of the Southern Wild comes to us as one of those movies “the industry can be proud of,” which the great bullshit detector Pauline Kael called out in her famous 1969 essay “Trash, Art and the Movies”—a film we feel honored to acclaim. It skims the surface of serious matters without asking us to actually grapple with their complexities: We can feel guilty, virtuous, and indifferent all at once.4

Beasts does this primarily by turning poverty into a kind of sentimental, specious poetry. Sentimentality has its uses, of course, not the least of which is to mask unpleasant realities with comforting hooey. Basically, it’s a form of moral and intellectual pornography, an easy way of getting off that, in the case of Beasts, begins and ends in patronizing attitudes of racial superiority. Just as nineteenth-century readers were endeared to the “funny little specimen” of Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, audiences and reviewers have also taken complete leave of their critical faculties over Beast’s Hushpuppy with her big eyes, shock of Don King hair, precious voice-over narration, and cutesy-pie name. Scott calls the girl an “American original”; in fact, though, Hushpuppy is just yet another iteration in a long and cherished line of pickaninnies. Beautifully played by Quvenzhané Wallis (six years old at the time of the shooting), the headstrong and scrappy Hushpuppy is just about the most adorable thing to come along since that kid in Webster. Then again, the pickaninny is always cute, always amusing, like a mischievous pet in a YouTube video. That’s her raison d’être. 

This is not to say that a white writer or filmmaker has no business depicting poor black children. The whole point of narrative art, it seems to me, is to discover ways of understanding one another, not just understanding ourselves. But the most incisive art also asks that we reckon with the perversities of our affections. Flannery O’Connor, for instance, captured the noxiousness of the pickaninny’s appeal in her trenchant fiction, which invariably included characters whose moral myopia helped its readers more clearly see their own unthinking prejudices. (In the story “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” for instance, a Southern woman believes that “little Negro children were on the whole cuter than little white children”; as far as she’s concerned, the sentiment excuses her more persistent bigotry.) No such characters appear in Beasts: The film lacks the crucial critical distance to throw such prejudices into sharp relief.5

Yes, I know: Most films are more morally vacuous, and depicting an adorable tyke who stands her ground is hardly the worst offense. It’s just that this film makes it altogether too easy. It depicts the harsh realities of poverty but then aestheticizes it. The script has Hushpuppy staring down the figments of her imagination—huffing and puffing giant prehistoric aurochs—but we are given no reason to believe that she won’t end up either an unemployed drunk like her father and his friends or a wistful prostitute like the woman we assume is her absent mother. True enough, she is a bright and self-reliant girl. But let’s not kid ourselves: Poverty is ugly and cruel and will pinch the hopes and dreams out of even the brightest children.

Beasts does something more pernicious than simply celebrate poverty. In casting social workers and public health officials who presume to think that a six-year-old girl should be fed, clothed, and looked after by adults as villains, the film tells us that we needn’t worry, that the poor just want to be left to fend for themselves. This is the film’s ugly operating assumption: if you are already poor (being black doesn’t hurt either), you are uniquely suited to thrive in squalor. It doesn’t matter how young or neglected you are; it doesn’t matter that your dad slaps you around when he’s angry and abandons you when he’s not; that your mom, it seems, is off working in some kind of floating whore house; that you’re not given a proper education or a bed to sleep in; and that you share your meals with hogs and dogs. That’s just your natural habitat. If you can catch catfish with your bare hands—if you can “beast it” in the film’s parlance—you’re going to be all right.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Zeitlin. The film is often lovely to look at it, radiating excitement for the surprising places artful imagery and editing can take us—an excitement largely absent in the recent work of earlier breakout directors, not to mention the listless efforts of far too many wry low-budget films sheathed in timid irony. That Zeitlin’s film is also patronizing and borderline racist, that it sentimentalizes poverty and glosses over neglect, and that it skirts tough questions by resorting to a half-baked and naïve fable—all of that is unfortunate, and Zeitlin should be held to account. But equally troubling are the critics who have become too intellectually disengaged to point out, and perhaps even see for themselves, Beasts of the Southern Wild’s shoddy claims to superior virtue. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. Perhaps they’re only too happy to make such claims for themselves.

Thomas Hackett is a writer and film-maker living in Austin. 

  1. The film has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis), Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar) Academy Awards.

  2. For more accolades see, for example, Ty Burr at The Boston Globe, Betsy Sharkey at The Los Angeles Times, and Manohla Dargis’s Sundance Round-up.

  3. The critics are also completely snowed by Beasts’ up-from-the-bootstrap, little-film-that-could mystique, evidently conflating Hushpuppy’s impoverishment with the filmmakers'. In fact, the film had a large crew, a budget twenty to thirty times a true shoestring production, and the Sundance imprimatur from the get go. Anyway, as everyone but a few film critics seem to realize, the Indie label has become little more than useful marketing tool, like the term alternative music, for films that are targeted at an elite audience and that purport, in one way or another, to be worthier than what gets financed by Hollywood studios. See American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond, edited by Geoff King, Claire Molloy and Yannis Tziomakis. 

  4. Unfortunately, the failing is not unique to Beasts. While any number of novels and short stories deftly depict the complex and subtle ways racial biases surface in society, there are very few American films that aren’t message-y, simplistic, and self-congratulatory. Six Degrees of Separation, adapted from John Guare’s play and starring Will Smith as a con man playing on white socialites’ warmth for the right kind of African American, smartly pointed up the vanity driving ostensibly liberal sympathies. It’s a theme The Blind Side neglected to explore.

  5. A far more honest and accurate depiction of the grim realities and dim hopes of the poor is Courtney Hunt’s 2008 Frozen River, starring Melissa Leo as a struggling single mom trying to feed her children something more than popcorn and Tang. Frozen River had a good festival run, too, winning the usual Indie awards, but the film was not a box office hit, perhaps because it refused to pretend that squalor is anything to celebrate or that the people who live in it are especially attractive and colorful.