By Andreana Clay
Originally Posted on Queer Black Feminsist
“I’m the man!” the little girl screamed at her father in a climatic scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild, a new film by Behn Zeitlin. My dear friend Holly and I checked it out tonight in downtown SF. It’s a film I’ve been wanting to check out for a while. And, it did not entirely disappoint. In fact, it did something else.
Beasts made me sick, literally. This has happened to me once before, because of the way the film is shot and our proximity to the front of the crowded theater, I became nauseous and had to run to the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details because it wasn’t pretty, but it was a nice break from the dizziness. Not just from the camera work, but also the storyline and overall flow of the film. I don’t want to imply that it wasn’t good. There were great things about it. For instance, Quvenzhane Wallis, the young woman who plays Hushpuppy, is breathtaking. In a word. Her voice, stories, screams, and strength infect every inch of this film, which was the the intent, as narrators often do. But, Wallis goes beyond this. You feel everything–every word she utters, every adventure she embarks upon, and her extreme isolation, relaying that she can count the times she’s been held in her short life on two fingers. If I could stomach it, I would watch this film over and over again just to see her. She is devastating. I don’t care if she never acts in another movie again, this was it. The same is true of Dwight Henry, who plays her father. He’s stunning.
So what was it, aside from the camera angles, that made me sick? Nothing, really. It just felt uneven, rushed, and, as its touted, fantastical. This film is loosely based on Lucy Alibar’s play, Juicy and Delicious, which I know little about, but it also–given it’s story location in the Southern Delta and Zeitlin’s love for New Orleans–is reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. Because of the similarities, the fantasy/magical element of the end of the world feels off to me. I don’t know that Katrina is far enough “behind us” to make this kind of movie–one that touches upon, but doesn’t really delve into the “truth.” I won’t give away spoilers, but I think it’s difficult to make a fantasy movie about a natural (and social/cultural) disaster that most of us haven’t seen the full scale of. Many of us have put out of our mind the flood victims, mostly Black, who were forced to leave their home city and still haven’t returned, lost their homes to flood damage and “lost paperwork,” and lost their lives due to a slow moving federal response. Remember Kanye’s (he’s mentioned way too much on this blog) George Bush doesn’t care about Black people comment? That was true.
But, that’s not really the case here, or at least that’s not what troubles me about the movie. The Black folks, though ‘magical’ at times, are the most interesting characters. It’s the white people in the film that tweaked me a bit. They are effectively “poor white trash.” The lines the white characters are given and their overall buffoonery–one guy is so drunk/disheveled that he opens the door of his house, doesn’t realize there are no steps and walks right into the water. It’s supposed to be a kind of funny, sweet and sympathetic scene, I think. But then we get inside his “house,” and his large, female counterpart (wife?) is passed out under the table, wakes up, and says something about “trying to touch my titties.” Outside of Hushpuppy–can’t stand these kinds of nicknames for little Black girls and there is no context as to why this is her name, more of the fantasy–all of the characters feel one dimensional. I think her character may have been written one-dimensionally, but her acting transcends it. In any case, there’s something about her magical quality, her strength that feels half written and insincere against a backdrop of bumbling, incompetent, but kind of lovable, poor white people.The distancing that had to/has to happen in order to portray those characters in that way demonstrates a false alignment with our heroine. And it’s an alignment, a solidarity that’s necessary to make this movie believable.
Benh Zeitlin is a white male filmmaker–as are most that gain attention–and I don’t fault him for that. He (and Alibar) have created one of the most beautiful Black characters to come along in a while. However, the portrayal of white people in the film represents a distancing between his whiteness and theirs that allows his privilege, his gaze to remain invisible. He is not a part of them. It’s not like the white people are racist in the film, which we collectively assume to be true when we view white + Southern, they’re just poor. And poverty, as a state, is something that it looks like he knows little about. Or he has constructed it in some way that he hopes filmgoers will go along with. But, it’s a representation that strips them of their humanity. And how is stripping the white people of their humanity when you’re trying demonstrate the super humanity of a Black girl whose mother deserted her and her father (which felt very Disney/Pixar, I must say and whose truncated body was sexualized in ways that didn’t go outside of the gaze whatsoever)? What does it say when the only other white people in the film are officials who force their way into people’s homes, try to break up families, and hold down the violent Black male body? Hushpuppy’s strength comes with much sacrifice, which is a story that gets told over and over again about Black women. But, in the end, she’s ok, she’ll be ok. Like all the others. That’s troubling to me in this current moment of openly celebrating the white male gaze.
Or, really, the white male.
If you follow this blog, you know that I watch a good chunk of TV. And I’m currently gearing up for Sunday night’s premiere of Breaking Bad (unless my DirectTV scrambles AMC, which will make me go all Walter White on folks). I also watch and am a fan of Mad Men. Both of these shows are in total celebration of all things white, male, and heterosexual.
So, what’s the problem? 1) All of the people that are killed or evil onBreaking Bad are people of color, mostly Mexican with one or two other Latinos thrown in for good measure. Walter White gets away with murder (literally) every season. He’s ruthless and, as the story goes, will do whatever it takes and whatever white guys are supposed to do, to protect his family. 2) Don Draper on Mad Men doesn’t trust women whatsoever, makes angels out of some and “whores” out of others as do all of the male characters on the show. This was explicitly the case this season when Joan and Peggy played both roles literally and figuratively by “betraying” his idea of them. I’d say this was all nostalgia or more fantasy, if it wasn’t coupled with Daniel Tosh’s recent “rape jokes,” George Zimmerman’s second release from jail, and the “beast or man” comments made about Serena Williams and Brittney Griner this week. A celebration. An all out arrogance.
While Beasts doesn’t exactly celebrate, it doesn’t feel in solidarity either. It feels defeatist. That’s the uneasy feeling it left me with. But there are scenes from the movie that will stay with me for a long time. Unfortunately, some of the scenes are the disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised.