An often repeated assertion in the body of film criticism I have written is the assertion that movies do not just mirror the culture of any given time; they also create it With this assertion in mind I leaving a viewing of the film Beasts of the Southern Wilds deeply disturbed and militantly outraged by the images I have just seen. Having traveled with friends an hour to see this acclaimed movie, I have no way home if I leave the cinema; there were images in the movie that I just did not want inside my head. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn tells students that putting images inside our heads is just like eating. And if “you are what you eat” it is equally true that to a grave extent we are what we see. Having read wonderful reviews of the film, pushed by friends and colleagues alike to see it, I was amazed that what I saw, they did not see. The majority of folks I talked with, like the reviewers, praised the film’s compelling cinematography, the magical realism, and the poetics of space. In his long affirming review in the New Yorker critic David Denby praises the film, calling it a “vibrant feature.”
Sadly, all the vibrancy in this film is generated by a crude pornography of violence. At the center of this spectacle is the continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a small six year old black girl called Hushpuppy (played by the ten year old actress Quzenhane Wallis). While she is portrayed as continuously resisting and refusing to be a victim, she is victimized. Subject to both romanticization as a modern primitive and eroticization, her plight is presented as comically farcical. Some audiences laugh as Hushpuppy, when enraged at the antics of her disappearing alcoholic oftentimes abusive wild man dad Wink, burns her shanty house. Initially, she hides from the fire in an overturned cardboard box until Wink rescues her by fiercely yelling mean spirited words that both frighten her and lead her to run for her life; in that moment she is more terrified of her raging dad than she is of the fire.
Hushpuppy has a resilient spirit. She is indeed a miniature version of the ‘strong black female matriarch,’ racist and sexist representations have depicted from slavery on into the present day. Like the unrealistic racist/sexist stereotypical images of grown black women in the recent blockbuster film The Help who confront all manner of exploitation and oppression only to triumph in this ridiculous macabre fantasy of modern primitivism, Hushpuppy is a survivor. From the onset of the film, she is depicted as a wild child, so at home in the natural wild of the Gulf of Mexico bayou world where black and white po’ folks create their own community affectionately called the Bathtub. This is the territory they claim as a renegade place of belonging. It is a total homemade world of make do, use whatever you got to survive.
For many folks who see this film it is the mythic focus that enchants. And yet it is precisely this mythic focus that deflects attention away from egregious sub-textual narratives present in the film. Writing about the role of myth n popular media that makes use of race in his book White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness critic Maurice Berger contends: “Despite the visual sophistication and supposed vigilance of a media-oriented culture …Western commentators, critics, and academics seem no to realize how duplicitous words and images can be. They simply do not understand how myths work, how myths hold us hostage to their smooth elegant fictions. The subject of race, perhaps more than any other subject in contemporary life feeds on myth…. Myth is the book, seamless narrative that tells us the contradictions and incongruities of race and racism are too confusing or too dangerous to articulate. Myths provide the elegant deceptions that reinforce our unconscious prejudices. Myths are the white lies that tell us everything is all right, even when it is not.” Deploying myth and fantasy we are shown a world in Beasts of the Southern Wild where black and white poor folks live together in utopian harmony. No race talk, no racial discourse disturbs the peace.