Beasts of the Southern Wild--from the perspective of two Southern Writers
KS: When I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild, I didn't know what to expect. I had heard some people say it was the best film they had ever seen and others grumble that the story wasn't that great. I didn't know what role the fantastic would play, but when I saw that the protagonist was a wild-haired little brown girl, my interest was piqued and I wanted to check it out immediately.
LP: Yes, I found the promotional images of Quvenzhane irresistible as well. That continued to be the case throughout the film. Even during moments that were hard to watch, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Both her beauty and her seemingly preternatural ability to tell stories with her five-year-old face were riveting. I also remember reading that there was an element of magical realism, a genre you almost never see in film with people of color. I’m a fiend for such stories, so they had me at hello.
KS: The first thing that echoed throughout the movie for me was this idea of "beasts." More than once humans were referenced as part of the larger community of animals. Hushpuppy and her father lived among beasts on their homestead, and a central part of life in the wild was the beasts that lived in the environment around them--beasts they feasted upon. Then there was Hushpuppy herself living in a dirty cluttered state, eating with her hands and running wild like some kind of beast of her own right. All the children of the community seemed similarly feral, but Hushpuppy the wildest, dirtiest of them all. A beast was even central to her father's story of Hushpuppy's conception. The story was grounded in exploring the layers of what it means to be a beast: they sheltered beasts, they ate beasts, Wink transformed into a beast in his anger, and for Wink, creating the baddest beast around was his parenting goal for his daughter.
Beast was even a verb in Wink's vocabulary. For me a major turning point in my understanding of his character came when a neighbor tried to teach Hushpuppy how to use a tool to open a crab, and Wink rushed over angry and offended. He grabbed a crab, yelled "Beast It!", ripped it in half, then started sucking on it. Then he yelled at Hushpuppy--the actor was just five years old when they shot this film--"Beast it!" In that scene I realized that how he was raising Hushpuppy was not neglect (at least not in his eyes). It was a conscious parenting choice. He wanted her to be the man, to be the baddest beast the Bathtub had ever seen, so she could hunt whatever food she needed and be unharmed by any danger that might befall her. It was a light bulb moment for me.
[spoiler alert] LP: Coming to understand Wink, his flaws and his intentions was such an important part of my journey as a viewer. Both the crab scene and the scene in which he teaches her how to catch a fish with her hands were really significant for me. I was born and raised in Terrebonne Parish (in Louisiana our counties are called parishes) where the film was shot. While I didn’t grow up in a community that physically resembled The Bathtub, those two lessons––how to catch and eat seafood––were deeply familiar; the harshness of the lessons, less so. The men in my family, my father and uncles, who taught me to fish, were always vigilant when it came to catfish like the type that Hushpuppy and Wink caught. You really can injure yourself handling them. I’ve caught a lot of catfish, but to this day I couldn’t take one off a hook if my life depended on it. The men in my family did that for me, to protect my hands from the barbs on the fish’s fins. In the film, Wink lets Hushpuppy experience that hurt, saying: “That’s all right. That’s part of it.” He doesn’t shield her from it because he knows she will need to do it for herself, that her life does depend on it.
It took me a while to get inside of Wink’s intentions though. Even while I recognized the survival skills he was teaching in the fishing scene and that amazing crab scene, I still wanted to protect and nurture Hushpuppy, wanted him to protect her in ways that were more recognizable to me. It wasn’t until I understood his secret––that he was not well––that I could fully let go of all my preconceived notions of who he was and who he should be. Getting to that point was hampered not only by my own bias as to what parenting should be, but also by my own buy-in on some familiar tropes. My initial impression of Wink was simply that he was an alcoholic, neglectful, perhaps even more than a little mentally disabled. That perception was driven in part by their physical living conditions. In television and film in 2012, poverty––even lower-working class life––is often a signifier of dysfunction. Being poor has been demonized on both the political stage and in our media images, because, of course, if you were doing the right thing you wouldn’t be poor. The filmmakers use this presumption brilliantly. We think we know Wink because of the familiar signifiers, but the truth holds so much more complexity––and so much love.
KS: It's true that there is a deep profound bias against the poor, especially the dirt poor, the rural poor. I heard there were some concerns about there being stereotypes employed in the film, but I felt like this was an example of a story world, not that it wasn't drawn from real life, but that it was not an attempt to define a people--it wasn't pointing a finger, it was telling a story, a very particular story. Wink and Hushpuppy were extremes. Even in the town they lived in, they lived apart in a wilder way than the rest of the town. I mean Wink was determined to be a part of the landscape and a part of the nature. From the outset when he roasts a chicken and calls his daughter to eat at the same time as the animals and has her eat with her hands and share her food with the animals, it is at first read as horrible ignorance and neglect. As you come to know him, you realize it is obstinance and an unyielding commitment to a very particular vision. I mean he's taking an extreme approach to parenting that isn't duplicated in the homes in the rest of the town.
I found it interesting too that Wink had a presence/a draw amongst others. He was something of a leader with the Bathtub residents. When he was among others he had a spark that didn't exist when he was home alone with Hushpuppy. A friend of mine said that Wink was heartbroken, that a large part of the reason that he was living in such destitute conditions was because he was heartbroken and had given up.
I did some reading on the film and I was interested to find that it was based on a play called "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar, a white woman from Georgia. The play is autobiographical and draws from the playwright's own relationship with her father. This suggests that the heart of the movie--the relationship between the father and daughter--is from Alibar's life experiences. The relationship was very intensely drawn and I am curious to know how much of the movie is recognizable and how much was changed when they moved the location and transformed the characters of the play. There was a very authentic core to it... at least to me. And it was thick with philosophical lines and thoughts and ideas that, even as I was watching it, I thought I'd need to see it again to get all that was contained within.
LP: I think your point about the “story world” is important here. I mentioned that I was drawn to the film initially because there was an element of magical realism and I think understanding that this world and these characters are highly stylized was a big part of my being able to completely submit to the journey. Throughout there were so many indicators that this story was taking place in a world apart: the “holidays” they have that no one else outside The Bathtub observes, celebrated with light and laughter; the little schoolhouse with their wonderful “witchy” teacher and all those elements from the natural world could have just as easily been a scene from some gnarly version of Hogwarts or Narnia; the mysterious catfish house/dancehall/riverboat where the children find, just for a moment, the lost and longed-for mothers; and, of course, the aurochs who come thundering down from the melting ice caps. All of it helps to create a sort of parallel universe where characters like Wink and Hushpuppy can exist in 2012, can be deeply flawed and profoundly poor but still imbued with human dignity and compelling complexities.
I think Beasts dwells somewhere amongst the crossroads of fairy tale, fable, myth and legend. It possesses all the hallmarks you’d find in The Brothers Grim, in Nordic, Greek and Egyptian mythology and Anansi stories, as well as in the contemporary tellings of writers like Neil Gaiman and Maurice Sendak. There is a quest, dark forces, healing elixirs, a booby-trapped escape route, a wise woman, a temporary respite in utopia, beasts of all kinds and so on. As in all those genres, though, the magic is merely a storytelling tool. Those tales are always about life’s most important lessons. In Beasts, Hushpuppy learns that you must fight for what you love, that you must be prepared to face down anything–– be it hurricanes, floods, mythic beasts or local government––to take care of what’s yours. Wink wanted to teach Hushpuppy to survive, but she learned so much more. She learned to fight for love until the very end, in a way that maybe Wink hadn’t been able to. I wonder if in the world of the story, his broken heart, over whatever happened with Hushpuppy’s mother and how he just gave up after she was gone, was just as responsible for his “demise” as his physical ailment?
KS: In bell hook's criticism of the film (a review titled "No Love in the Wild"), she states: "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 [Quvenzhane] 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."
hooks expresses amazement that her friends and others she respected liked this film. She states: "It is a major mystery that moviegoers adore this film and find it deeply moving and entertaining. Amid many real life tragedies of adult violation of children (i.e. Penn State,) violations that subject small children to verbal abuse, physical and psychological violence’ sexual assault, it is truly a surreal imagination that can look past the traumatic abuse Hushpuppy endures and be mesmerized and entertained by Beasts of the Southern Wild."
I find her perspective interesting because from an objective perspective I can see where she is coming from with her concern about Hushpuppy's life, but it makes me wonder if, for hooks, there is an acceptable space where someone with a life like Hushpuppy's could adequately be presented on film. We know that children are abandoned, we know that parents fail, we know that violence camouflages pain, and we know that this is not the domain of any one race or region. I don't think for a second there was a suggestion that the life that Hushpuppy was enduring was anything but staggering and earthshattering. I don't think the film was magnetizing because she was living under those conditions, but that despite those conditions there was much to be taught, learned, and shared here. It brings to mind the National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones. It too feature rural poverty, shocking in its aggressive presence, painful to witness, yet, gripping as the story takes you from an outsider whose breath is caught in disgust, fear, worry, into being an insider in the story where the characters become less of a spectacle and more a peer with whom you stand shoulder to shoulder as the lessons unfold.
For me the vibrancy of the film did not come from the violence in the film--I find it hard to believe that the anyone would have found vibrance there--the vibrance of the film came from the creative, resilient, and assertive way the entire town confronted life. From the cobbled together car/boat, to the floating school with all the natural specimens, to the herby "medicine" in a jar the teacher shared with her, my mind was spinning with all the imaginative ways that this community answered life's challenges. I was engaged by how they did things so differently from the way that I do them. I also recognized the townspeople's stubborn, internally-validated zest for life as one of the characteristics of home. That proud stamp of doing things your own unique way, that insistence that where is nowhere else to live but on your home soil--it is so New Orleans, and it has been so questioned in the wake of storms like Katrina.
I also did not find Hushpuppy to be eroticized in any way. I didn't find anyone in the film to be eroticized except her mother in her father's memory. I would not have been able to withstand her being eroticized. I think what was so hard for me to swallow about Esch in Salvage the Bones was the violent disregard for her body and her sexuality. In contrast I felt that Wink was a physical shelter for Hushpuppy in an odd way. There was a safety for her in that community and in that relationship and I felt that when he started to show her his rage and when that one moment of physical violence did occur, it was a departure for their relationship. I did not believe he was regularly violent to her--but his rejection of her softness and her desire for softness was violent and painful to experience. Interestingly I find it more painful to watch reality shows of black women baiting and beating each other than to watch Hushpuppy work to carve out a safe place for herself in a world that was literally shifting around her.
I also don't think the word "entertained" is appropriate here. It suggests that people were entertained by Hushpuppy's plight, and I don't think anyone was. I definitely don't think her plight is ever presented as comical or farcical. I do think that some other elements of the film are presented as farcical. People laughed before Hushpuppy burned down her home because of the insane mixture of things she put on the stove, it was a comic moment that turned serious when it became clear that she was in danger and her home was going to burn down. My favorite farcical moment was Wink's story of Hushpuppy's mother. Him waking up, us seeing her from the waist down in her underwear stalking a gator with a shotgun, shooting the reptile, and the blood splattering on her body. Any laughter that may have occurred at inappropriate moments could have just as easily been discomfort as amusement. I have watched so many serious films and been surprised when people laugh at terrifying moments--I recognize it as discomfort, fear, and confusion.
I think many of us live in emotional wilds more terrifying than Hushpuppy's existence, and I didn't find Wink and Hushpuppy as a suggested prototype of a people--they had their own unique, rich story to tell.
LP: I think your response to hook’s criticism hits it on the head, and I don’t have much to add except to say that, one, there wasn’t any laughter in my theatre at the points she mentioned; and, two, I thought her insistence that the filmmakers had eroticized Hushpuppy was, frankly, baffling.
In fact, one of the conversations I had after I saw Beasts was about the way in which the children of The Bathtub, particularly the girl children, in spite of the inherent roughness of the poverty that surrounded them, seemed to be protected from many of the dangers their counterparts often encounter in vulnerable communities. There were moments––like when they meet the boat captain who takes them to Elysian Fields––where my friend and I both held our breath, waiting for an inappropriate interaction that never happened.
As you so accurately point out, rural poverty is “shocking in its aggressive presence, painful to witness…” and yet the people of The Bathtub, even Wink with his sometimes disturbing parenting choices, were able to maintain one of those basic human dignities––being able to protect their children––in a way that is rarely the case in the depiction of poor and working class peoples. Getting to that realization, seeing past the harsh physical conditions, was one of the big rewards of Beasts.
Most importantly, though, I just can’t help but fight for this story, for seeing poor people and people of color as rich, complex characters on a challenging, layered journey. Hooks seems to assert that Beasts isn’t valid because it doesn’t deal with race. She references the critic Maurice Berger: “’…Western commentators, critics, and academics seem not 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.”
I don’t think anyone believes there’s perfect racial harmony 24/7 in the Bathtub, but as a writer I chaff against the notion that we can’t tell a single story about people of color if it’s not about race.
KS: I also think it was a very internal story. I don't internally sit around thinking about race. Race rises up when I deal with the outside world, the friction of the images, myths, and assumptions around me, but not in my day-to-day interactions with my father (well, in some of our discussions, but he's an intellectual and we're both writers). Hushpuppy and her father were in a bubble within the larger bubble of Bathtub and Beasts wasn't about the city of Bathtub, the town and the people in it were basically window dressing in Wink and Hushpuppy's story. There's so much that we don't know about the town, and there's not one character in that town whose actions spark a definitive change in the storyline. I don't even have a handle on the geography of the town. It was as if there were three characters in the film: Wink, Hushpuppy, and the town/wilds around them.
We only met people as they became important to Hushpuppy's story, and we knew nothing about their lives outside of their role in Hushpuppy's unfolding. It would have been an obvious push if the movie started to take an outside eye and comment on race (and gender, which also was not overtly discussed). If the story was *avoiding* race, I think that would be a concern, but it doesn't avoid race, the film stayed true to the story. I go back to Salvage the Bones again. Salvage the Bones is set in a community that is so marginalized that race is part of the meta, meta story. We are so far inside their bubble, that we are on a microscopic level, in which we take on their preoccupations and worries. As a reader, I may have an analysis of what role race plays in the story, but the characters are simply living their lives.
A similar question has come up before in my own work. Most of my stories don't mention race at all--and for the most part, my characters are black and are rooted firmly in black traditions. There's more than one way to engage race, and one way is to let black people be their human, flawed selves, and let them fill the lens of the camera, and let their story's unfolding be the catalyst for reflection and change.
LP: Exactly. Beasts captures one young girl’s vision of life in a specific time and place. The fact that Hushpuppy's journey wasn't about race doesn’t make it any less powerful or worthy of being told. The “wilds” around us are full of stories and if we’re lucky some of them will be uncomfortable and shocking and challenge the way we see the world, the way Hushpuppy's does.
KIINI IBURA SALAAM is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. Kiini's work is rooted in in eroticism, speculative events, and women's perspectives. Her fiction has been anthologized in such collections as Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Dark Eros. Her nonfiction has been published in Ms. magazine, Essence magazine, and Utne Reader. Her KIS.list e-report chronicles the ups and downs of the writing life and is currently being serialized in the e-book format. The first volume is titled On the Psychology of Writing: Notes from the Trenches. She is the author of Ancient, Ancient, a collection of speculative tales that revolve around the dark, the sensual, and the magical.
LYNN PITTS is a writer from Houma, Louisiana. Her fiction has been published in Drum Voices Review and Crossroads: Southern Stories of the Fantastic. She worked for a time as a journalist in New Orleans, penning a weekly column and features for Gambit Weekly. Currently she lives in New York City where she juggles advertising copywriting and writing her first novel; she eagerly anticipates the day when she looks back on that dual existence and finds it amusing. She has an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College.