On Fantasy and Feeling (Regarding #Beasts of the Southern Wild)

[Edit:  Warning – Spoilers abound]

If ever there was a film that maximized sensation without devolving into spectacle, Beasts of the Southern Wild was it.  Barely.  It rides the line between poverty porn and social critique, but somehow never manages to lose balance and fall on one side or the other.  It takes children seriously.  Quvenzhane Wallis, the girl who plays Hushpuppy, deserves every one of the accolades she has received.  She made this movie.  Give that child an Oscar TODAY.

Beasts is effervescent with feeling.  Hushpuppy, Wink, and the people of the Bathtub feel everything and the film’s execution of that pleasure is surreal.  Their world is carnal and crimson.  Dirt, sweat, rain, sun, shelled shrimp, alcohol–everything is tactile.  One of the first scenes with the entire community is filled with sparklers, simulating the magic of fête and festival.  Miss Bathsheba teaches social studies using a tattoo of an Auroch on her thigh, a moment so viscreal for Hush Puppy that the beasts become symbolic of the chaos of the storm and her father’s impending death.  Even the crawfish are wet and lush, mouth watering.

I found myself recalibrating over and over throughout the film.  I’d watch a scene–Wink slapping Hush Puppy, Hush Puppy running around in her underwear, the insurrection at the rescue camp–and brace for the worst.  My anxiety was epic.  I was afraid Wink would turn out to be an abusive father, or Hush Puppy would run into the wrong white man, à la A Time to Kill, and permanently lose her innocence (the exchange on the fishing boat on the way to the floating crab shack had me in a terror until they safely arrived).  None of this happened and I am (sadly) thankful and pleased to see a movie approach black fathers and daughters honestly and without pathology.

At the evacuation camp, I was afraid the police would swoop in and Hush Puppy would end up stuck in that starched dress, talking to Wink through prison bars for the rest of the movie.  But Wink and the rest escaped unscathed, allowing Hushpuppy’s father to die a good death–at peace, at home, and in the manner of his choosing.  And while I kept waiting for close-ups over barrels of crabs, shrimp, and crawfish to be more than a clever camera shot and become metaphor, even when the storm tore the Bathtub-the-place apart, the community held.  Through flooding, “rescues,” and forced evacuation, the Bathtub stayed together into the final scene–a humbler, quieter parade with Hushpuppy as ‘King of the Bathtub’ front and center, embodying the role her father bestowed on her ever so early in the movie.

The role of the levee put my positioning as a New Orleans-centric person of color under siege in ways I didn’t expect.  Hurricane Katrina exposed the criminal neglect of the levees surrounding New Orleans and the levees themselves became symbolic of everything unnatural about the 2005 disaster, memorialized forever in Spike Lee’s four-part documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.  In the wake of that recent history and the trauma we experienced as a nation watching the waters flood into New Orleans, to witness the explosion in the film set my teeth on edge.  I am still uncomfortable with the scene both for what it must remind us about the very complicated world of the Gulf South and also for how it may be used to distort the very real history of levees, explosions, choices made by people in power, and choices made by people without power but with a deep and insurgent determination to LIVE.

That said, to watch Beasts, to see a people feel that much, live that hard, and turn surviving into an art form was so delicious it was almost painful.

And because of this, I have questions.

Surviving shouldn’t feel tasty going down or be an end in and of itself.  In Pariah, Alike’s survival is a triumph because it is clear she is Going On.  In Beasts, we are meant to see survival as a triumph but also a conclusion.

Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy

Is that all we can expect?

And I also feel betrayed, because the movie used the fantastic (something you know the Sable Fan Gyrl knows and loves) to make this conclusion logical and okay.  After all, like any fantasy, Beasts asks us to suspend our reality and say to ourselves that those aren’t boars against a blue screen; those are clearly Aurochs, prehistoric beasts cryogenically frozen in Arctic ice, melted now by the heat of Wink’s illness and on their way to destroy Hushpuppy’s existence.  And as an audience, if we can make that jump, why not suspend reality a bit more?  Why not ignore the recent past, shelve what we know about Hurricane Katrina, exploding levees, the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, hell, even access to health care?

Beasts asked us to imagine communities like the Bathtub exist without internal dynamics to be teased out, explored or explained when disaster strikes.  It asks us to ignore the one other black child in the movie, and not to ask the black lady at the crab shack about her tears, or where are the other mothers or where is the rest of Miss Bathsheba’s family  (on the way whites are stereotyped in the film, see Andreana Clay’s post here).  And while you’re at it, don’t ask about other fathers, and parents-in-law, and godparents, and grandparents, and gods or Gods and all of this is okay not to ask about because those Aurochs are so cool and the sparklers are about the human spirit and oh look Hush Puppy is King of the Bathtub.

You cannot convince me that Hushpuppy isn’t saavy enough to have a gaze on at least some of these issues of kinship, history, and society.  Fantasy and magical realism are not an excuse to leave these things unexplored.  And neither is (the loneliness of) childhood.

This is not magical realism.  Magical realism, at its heart, is steeped in the mysticism of individuals in the present asking questions of people in the past who are never really gone. It is having the door to the spirit world open a crack and hearing the whisper of ancestors’ voices through the gap.

And this is not fantasy to me.  The cornerstone of fantasy is world-building.  Ask any nerd worth their salt and they will tell you the devil is in the details of the place you are creating.  The most powerful fantasy worlds are the ones you cannot forget because the familial, the familiar, and the political are so intricate and normal.

I think Wallis’s performance is one that should not be missed and hope everyone sees the movie.  But I also want us to be critical when we watch it.  And I needed more.  Beasts is tailor-made for several Oscar nominations, what with the whisper of Katrina, the brilliant young actor, the fantasy elements, the tearful goodbyes, and more.  But the same recipe that makes it work on so many audiences, so easily, may very well just be the latest and greatest in a long line of representations meant to numb us to the very complicated dynamics of race, place, and space at work in our own everyday.  We should enjoy Beasts and cheer for Hushpuppy and Wallis, but we also need to see what needs be seeing.

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