Who are the 'Beasts of the Southern Wild?'

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild – winner of the prestigious Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Cannes’ Camera D’Or (and a featured film at this year’s American Black Film Festival) opened this week in New York in limited release at the Sunshine theater.

A runaway, critical smash, Beasts is a heartening fable that tells the tale of a young girl, Hushpuppy – played with gusto by local Louisianan talent Quvenzhane Wallis — who grows up in the “bathtub,” a backwater community in the wilderness of Louisiana with her ailing father, Wink — played with equal ferocity by first time actor and fellow native Dwight Henry.

The story begins just before a Katrina-like storm ravages the southern peninsula. It is clear from the beginning of the film that Hushpuppy and her single father, Wink have a very special relationship, bonding over “feedtime,” (dinnertime), and the principles of survival, strength, and self sufficiency that Wink roughly imparts on his courageous daughter. As the big storm approaches, indignant and prideful (and a bit drunk and misguided), Wink refuses to make any preparations or even consider leaving his home in the “bathtub,” rallying his friends and neighbors to stay and ride out the storm (perhaps motivated by an unacknowledged fear of being left alone to do so with a six year old daughter.)

Surviving the perilous night of the storm during which Hushpuppy is forbidden to cry, the two are left to navigate the dystopic landscape of their beloved “bathtub,” scrounging for survivors and a means to move forward. Over the course of the film, they discover other survivors who remain, seemingly, undaunted by the storm (joining forces in a plot to drain the bathtub’s flooded banks), are “saved” by local rescue efforts, and Hushpuppy, due to her father’s failing health, is ultimately led on her own journey back home, escaping the “shelter” imposed upon them.

Beasts is fundamentally a story of survival and self determination, and a sketch of a proud community asked by society, their environment, and one another to unite, triumph over adversity, and resist weakness and defeat at all costs. The relationship at it’s core between Hushpuppy and her well-meaning father — who, despite the fact that his blind, if well cultivated, machismo and carelessness lead them both to danger — is emotional and inspiring. The cinematography is unquestionably beautiful, the hot, water logged landscape well captured and used to enrich this Homeric tale of survival and transformation. A fine film, nonetheless, what remains unclear in Beasts of the Southern Wild is who, in fact, are the beasts.

It would be perhaps too easy to mark the the alligators, wild pigs, and mythical and enigmatic mutant hogs that punctuate scenes of the film as the beasts to which the title refers (the giant mutant hogs seemingly representations of the host of obstacles, and injustices long endured and literally following Hushpuppy and those native to the “bathtub” over the course of their journey, emerging after the storm from melted polar icecaps and smacking of the hipster stylings of films like Where the Wild Things Are).  But, there are a few instances, some not so subtle — as when, during a scene after the storm when Hushpuppy and her father Wink are having a crab feed with the other survivors, Hushpuppy, attempting to pierce the tender flesh of the crab with a fork is admonished by her father to “beast it” (that is, tear at the crab with her bare hands) – that lend themselves to a more circumspect interpretation.

At such moments one can’t help but wonder: are the people occupying the “bathtub” in fact the beasts of the southern wild? And, if so , are Hushpuppy’s albeit adorable, animalistic snarls and shrieks at different moments in the film — like when she “bests” her father at an arm wrestling match — tied to a darker mode of story telling steeped in the literary/anthropological tradition of the “noble savage,” which romanticize experiences of the indigenous outsider? If we follow that strain, it also begs the question of whether this story is purely the heroic tale of a young girl proud of her father, her community and tied to the natural beauty, strength and character of the wilderness she comes from; or an overly sentimental, and relatively flat yarn that makes us all feel a little better about the devastation of events like Katrina, and the many forgotten communities to which they lay waste.

The perceived racial undertones are not dreamed up in a vacuum, or even tied specifically to the fact the this tale of impoverished yet empowered black and Creole people is brought to us by a white filmmaker, Benh Zeitlin. Instead, these are suspicions that grow from a long history in art and culture of characterizing black and indigenous people (noble or otherwise) as beastly, subhuman, and primitive.

All things considered, Beasts is a film worth seeing, and is certainly strong creatively and aesthetically – and a notable effort as Zeitlin’s first feature film (produced on a relatively small budget and with largely local talent) – but it feels at times enamored with itself and a bit too earnest in insisting the intrinsic pride, joy and happiness of it’s subjects, and their tenure in the “school of hard knocks.”

Related: Beats of the Southern Wild website

Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the UK, promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasequinn.