The Brilliance and Banality of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” catechistically instigates us to contemplate the origin of our existence. Is life an evolving conversation between past action and future possibility? Is one’s survival best informed by obedience to a natural order, or adaptability? Is modernity a gift or a curse? “Beasts” also wants us to examine what responsibilities we hold for self and others, and at what costs. What tutelage best prepares a child for impendent life after parents passing? What is one’s obligation to self and community? The film’s success lays in positing such weighty and philosophical questions, situating the audience as contemplative explorers in search of answers instead of passive observers. However, the way the movie itself unfolds and investigates these questions becomes its own Achilles’ heel; its exploration and exposition of them becomes duplicitous. The exploration and exposition are mired by unexamined stereotypes, entangled within meandering abstractions, and obscured by mishandled juxtapositions of past and present.
The film’s presentation of masculinity and fatherhood is wrought with typecasting. Resuscitated is the portrayal of an African American man as inept, damaged and uncivilized. He is deemed ill-equipped to take care of his own life and the lives of those for whom he is responsible. The character Wink “actualizes” these suppositions as he holds no steady job and does not draw in sufficient income to sustain his family’s current living or future prospects. The housing he provides himself and his daughter Hushpuppy is makeshift and dilapidated, comprised of discarded trailers that harbor few resources or necessities, brimming with debris. Hushpuppy’s food is a putrid mixture of gravy and cat food which she has to mix together herself, and roast chicken supposedly kept “sterile” in a dirty cooler. Wink is not depicted as a provider; he is reduced to a scavenger of the land. Their transportation is a truck bed made afloat by plastic drums. Livestock and wild animals run rampant, uninstructed by fences, inappropriately comingling while also left to fend for their survival, garnering what little food he tosses to them. Dismally, Wink is presented as inadequate in providing for self, daughter, and animals in his charge.
“Beasts” also portrays Wink as enfeebled by responsibility, falling short in several physical and educative duties a parent is expected to fulfill. He comes across as incompetent. Although he “teaches” his daughter independence by having her live in a separate shack, a dress rehearsal for life after he dies, his instruction-for-survival is left to her inference. Other than when Wink actually demonstrates for Hushpuppy how to fish by snatching a catfish from the water with bare hands and in his words “whacking it in the head,” Wink is rarely shown teaching her specific roles, responsibilities, or rituals that will help her survive in life. “Feed up time” is an insufficient summoning of Hushpuppy to come over to his quarters and eat as a family, although they are never shown breaking bread together. Instead, she squats on the rubble underneath his living quarters in a crude coup where she scarfs a chicken carcass in solitary. During a community meal, when a friend of a family begins teaching Hushpuppy how to open a crab with a tool, her father brutishly interrupts, instructing her to “beast it” by cracking it open with her bare hands. The film attempts to convey Wink as a dutiful father struggling to make ends meet and make the frayed parts of life hold together. But instead, Wink comes across as unprepared, unskilled, and drunken. He is a vivified aberration and mockery of the Biblical endowment of humans having dominion over the earth.
The lacking of material and emotional provisions is “supposed” to result in Hushpuppy becoming self-sufficient and better able to deal with strife and struggle. Sadly, the dearth that prevails perpetuates a hackneyed representation of Wink as an incompetent man and father. This portrayal diminishes an otherwise potentially powerful message of fathers facilitating their offspring in garnering grit and resilience. Perversely, Wink’s paternalism is portrayed as a cloaked form of “tough love.” But, it is unclear in the movie exactly what kind of life this father is preparing his child to live. To the film’s credit, adverse to the commonplace assumptions and depictions of African American men abandoning their families, ”Beasts” magnifies Wink’s resolve to remain in Hushpuppy’s life and raise her after her mother’s departure.
“Beasts” gains redemption for portraying Wink as a man and father that does not allow the absence of Hushpuppy’s mother to speak greater than his presence. As single parent, he remains and assumes paternal and shepherding responsibilities. Although shabby provisions, he provides food and shelter. He protects his daughter when the major storm hits. He spends time with her. He gives her advice. He embraces her when she is scared.
However, this same character is perforated by a harmful representation, embracing formulaic imaginings constantly associated with an African American man as inhuman, savage and reckless. Unable to deal with life’s trials, Wink lashes outward and inward. When he becomes enraged, things get hurled. When stressed, he indulgently and excessively gulps down bottles of liquid sedation. When around fellow community members he is loud and brash. When rescued, he becomes ireful, grunting and shoving rescue away workers who are trying to save his and his daughter’s lives. This is not to suggest that there is a best, absolute, or singular way to portray “real life” people through characters on film. However, the opportunity to render an informed and multifaceted African American male character is left untilled and unsown.
But, to the film’s credit, Wink is a plausible character. Dwight Henry renders a compelling embodiment of a flailing protagonist in a world where scarcity abounds. It must have been toilsome vexatious work for Henry as an African American man to embody one epitomizing so many repressive stereotypes and potentially no redeeming qualities. Yet Henry does, and in spite of the typecast, imbues Wink with humanity and genuineness. Because of Henry’s skillfulness to empathize, he renders Wink as more than his physical, economic, cultural and social ineptitudes. Despite the clichéd scripting of Wink as broken, Henry infuses Wink’s character as one of deep convictions with an undeniable resilience to uphold them. Consequently, Wink comes across as a man fervently and justifiably adhering to living out his beliefs no matter what. Because of Henry, there is no doubt that Wink loves Hushpuppy with ferocity and devotion, a love supreme. Amidst the pyre of stereotypes, Henry’s rendering of Wink makes him exhibit the qualities of a phoenix. Wink is ever-rising from the ashes of deteriorating health and an economic scrapheap to prevail for his daughter. Despite the preponderance of one-dimensional writing of Wink as hapless and helpless, Henry’s industrious portrayal of Wink redeems his storying as an devoted African American man and father. Henry’s portrayal of Wink transforms Wink so that he emanates not with debilitation but with determination.
Portrayals of the African American woman do not fare better in “Beasts.” The gamut of the expression of her womanhood is limited in scope, shrunken to magnify shortcomings and body parts. The audience’s closest understanding of Hushpuppy’s mother, a woman pivotal to Wink’s and Hushpuppy’s reality, comes only through these two characters’ sparse memories. We are not made privy to her heart, soul, and thinking. We are intentionally left in the dark about the chronology of her interactions with the main characters, and her involvement with them both as individuals and as a family. Life lessons, familial impartations and spiritual teachings are veiled, thinly suggested, or just plain absent. Yet, her “presence” is seemingly so central to who they have become and their current predicaments. Her absenteeism is an unraveled bow that, paradoxically, binds them together. For Hushpuppy, “mother” is only a voice that softly lulls and talks back from a tattered jersey strewn over a worn dining room chair. For Wink, her disappearance is fondly distilled into a sexually charged flirtation. For both, she is disintegrated, fragmented, enshrouded within a characterization of absence, allure, and arousal.
The film entertains an extended but dichotomous metaphor of an African American woman’s sexuality as sensual and manipulative, seismic and predatory. The “mother” has raptorial eyes that invite, penetrate, and capture. Flames instantly alight under pots as her hips sway pass; water yields to boil. Frost from the fridge exhales and surrenders white emissions when she bends down and opens it. In one particularly perverse flashback, while outside lounging with Wink, she spots an approaching alligator, draws a riffle, and blasts it. Then, in intentional slow motion, the film slows down so she is shown strutting, assumes a model stance, and spreads gleaming legs apart (rifle propped beside her). Turned frontward, she reveals animal blood splattered and soiling bright white briefs. This imagery is problematic, seemingly exaggerating the mother’s sexuality for titillation, proliferating sex over substance in character. In this scene “Beasts” perpetrates and perpetuates a ridiculous and irrelevant melding of gender, sex and violence, eroticizing menstruation and associating slaughter with foreplay. Consequently, the film’s treatment of the Black woman and her body becomes exploitative, reviving the Hottentot Venus.
The film’s singular and myopic focus on a woman through her sexuality is revisited when it hyperbolizes prostitutes as maternal surrogates. After returning from the rescue center to The Bathtub, Hushpuppy and her entourage endeavor an emancipatory swim. They happen upon the Elysian Fields, a brothel barge. After boarding, the innocents survey the unfamiliar setting. Sensing their wonder, the prostitutes then congregate around them, affectionately welcoming and marveling over them. Several take it upon themselves to embrace and cuddle each girl in a scene resonating with imagery of mothers reuniting with and reclaiming their missing daughters. Hushpuppy happens upon a young cook strongly resembling her mother. The cook is immediately endearing. She takes it upon herself to fry alligator to feed her (perhaps harkening back to the erotic rifle episode), administers advice, holds her, slow dances with her and then in tears departs, leaving Hushpuppy alone, again. Providing a jarring collection of images and associations, “Beasts” is unclear in relaying why maternal acclimation and affirmation would be readily available in a place where conventionally no one would want to purchase them.
“Beasts,” to its credit, does promotes the idea that the provision of love is not limited or exclusive to biological progenitors. Acceptance and nurturing can be found anywhere and given freely from anyone. To this point, in a muddled melding of motherliness and “love for sale,” prostitutes are therefore elevated to the status of parental replacements. However, a contradiction then surfaces. Selecting female prostitutes as its exemplars, the film’s supposition endorses a sex-based stereotype that there is a maternal instinct infused within the genetic coding of all females, transcending station in life, whether or not one has given birth. When called upon by the universe or happenstance, that genetic calling will activate action, and any female courier in the vicinity will instantly comply to deliver love. It is an overreaching generalization and presumptuous assertion to make.
Yet amidst equivocal typecasts and askew representations, “Beasts” does provide positive portrayals of women and girls. In spiritual and natural form, and across age ranges, there are several occurrences in the movie where the notion of female is attributed to guidance, information, and assistance. Hushpuppy’s “mother,” teacher and surrogate incarnate are there for her in critical moments and turning points. While cooking, Hushpuppy takes down her mother’s basketball jersey from its shrine and drapes it over a dining chair, perhaps as a ritual. They begin conversing, with the mother-in-voice “checking in” and affirming her daughter. This suggests that, no matter what, a mother’s love is always within reach. On the barge, the cook, which the film alludes to being Hushpuppy’s real mother, admonishes her on how to handle the bitter and the sweet in life. She advises Hushpuppy as if knowing her immediate circumstances, and maternally, forecasting what she will later experience:
“When you a child, people gonna tell you life is all happy and honky dory. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, so get that out your head right now . . . One day everything on your plate gonna fall on the floor. Nobody gonna be there to pick it up for you. It’s gonna be all on you. You understand what I’m saying? So smile girl, cause nobody like a pity-party-having-ass woman.”
Hushpuppy’s teacher personifies an example of a strong, resolute, steadfast woman. At the beginning of the film, she puts forth a crude lesson about the survival of the fittest; she admonishes her young students to prepare for an eminent storm, and allegorically, teaches that hardship is a cyclical yet essential part of learning how to become self-sufficient:
“Meat. Every animal is made out of meat. I’m meat, y’all asses meat, everything is part of the buffet of the universe. This here is an auroch, a big fierce mean creature that used to walk the face of the earth back when we all lived in caves. And they would gobble them cave babies down right in front of the cave baby parents. The cave man couldn’t do nothing about it, ‘cause they was too poor and too small. Who up in here think the caveman was sitting around crying like a bunch of pussies? Y’all gotta think about that. Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled. Ice caps gonna melt, water’s gonna rise, and everything south of the levee is going under. Y’all better learn how to survive now.”
Throughout the film, she functions as an educator, griot, and nurturer. Despite teaching from a one-room schoolhouse, she is resourceful and resilient in giving what she believes best equips her students to survive. She is shown giving Hushpuppy several herbs to use with her father whenever he faces a health crisis. In another scene, she checks on Hushpuppy to find out what she needs when sitting alone in front of the schoolhouse (as no one has picked her up).
“Beasts” situates the depiction of young girls in a positive light. Hushpuppy is a character who conjures female archetypes; in her case, as consoler, guardian and informer. In her father’s dying days, Hushpuppy tenderly fulfills a dying wish, feeding him his last supper, sharing with him the nourishing vestiges she saved while on the barge. It is an endearing moment of affirmation and ushering provided by a daughter. She also shares a dual role as a character and omniscient narrator. She personifies an “old soul,” enabled to witness relationships across different plains. She is a medium between natural and spiritual worlds, constantly listening to animals, placing them to her ear, attentive to what they have to say. She is an observant conduit between prehistoric and current times, keenly aware of the impact of imbalance. Throughout the movie, she relays premonitions and warnings about what will occur if humankind and nature do not strike a balance.
However, two things become problematic with the way Hushpuppy is constructed and rendered. One problem lies within the dual role of Hushpuppy as simultaneously omniscient narrator and young character. How much can she know about natural order and only be all of six years old? At that age, how can she articulate mythic/prehistoric shortcomings of mankind? Second, the archetypal aspects of her character that are positively represented become beclouded and muddied by the imagery of a pickaninny. Uniformed in wild hair, tattered clothes, dirty white galoshes and underwear worn as outer clothing, she reinvigorates the image of a “nappy-headed,” “backwater” wild child, which conflicts with the exaltation of her as a keenly aware wise child. Although the film is attempting to maintain consistency across the situational context of the story and its setting by having Hushpuppy look and dress as she does, instead, her depiction echoes back to a depreciative doppelgänger.
Place plays an important role in “Beasts”. Set in a seemingly pristine pre-Katrina expanse, the inhabitants of The Bathtub on the fictitious Isle de Charles Doucet keep to themselves. And want it to stay that way. Though part of Louisiana, The Bathtub functions solely within a self-exiled enclave. It is disconnected by choice from any state-based identity, holding ties only as deep and wide as its own exclusive commune.
To the film’s credit, it situates The Bathtub within a larger narrative about the impact of modernity on people; despite conveniences offered by modernity, what can result are the unforeseen consequences of materialism, indulgence and over-reliance. The residents of The Bathtub are portrayed as minimally dependent on contemporary trappings and accoutrements. Their reliance on herbs to heal, the catching of shellfish and fish with bare hands, and owning few material possessions, illustrates the residents as observers and preservers of simplicity. This suggests that The Bathtub is a kind of paradise, and its inhabitants are frugal Adams and Eves.
Residents of The Bathtub intentionally make no attempt to interact or connect with the land and people on the other side of the levees. As stated by Wink while floating on the water with Hushpuppy, The Bathtub is deemed as unspoiled, versus the other side of the levees as ugly and stained by modernity. Hushpuppy at her young age recognizes and adopts the dichotomous distinction between “them” and “us”:
“They ain’t got nothing we got. They only got holidays once a year. They got fish stuck in plastic wrappers. They got their babies stuck in carriages. And chicken on sticks.”
Modernity is situated as a threat that is believed will contaminate and dismantle the residents’ way of life if allowed. Modernity is foreign, equated with being adversarial, inimical, and unhelpful. But despite this assertion, the residents of The Bathtub come across as imbecilic; even if modern means are the only ones that can save them, they will resist and refuse them. The attempt to portray the residents as preservationists results in them coming across as ignoramuses. If not accepting the benefits that come with change kills them, so be it. Literally. For example, Wink vehemently refuses the benefits of medicine, even if it means increasing his longevity for his daughter. Early in the film he is seen marching back home from the hospital, still wearing the bracelet and gown issued to him when admitted. He rebuffs needed care. This will not be the only time he or fellow residents either flee from or flat out refuse help.
Although ”Beasts” celebrates The Bathtub’s residents’ collective spirit of preservation against modernity, it exacerbates the typecasting of rural residents, characterizing them as too callow to accept help even when facing dire circumstances. Against better judgment to relocate to a safer place, several residents, including Wink and his daughter, choose to remain in The Bathtub during a massive storm. Afterwards, those that survived are salvaged, evacuated from the rubble, and relocated to a rescue facility—kicking and screaming. At the shelter, they collectively rebuff care. The food is different, so Wink admonishes Hushpuppy to not eat it. The clothing is different; Hushpuppy is shown uncomfortable and made to feel awkward as she stands still, wearing a clean dress and combed hair. Then, unexpectedly, in a hasty mass exodus, several of the residents flee from the “Open Arms” rescue facility. Their actions mock inmates breaking out of prison, as they make a run for freedom back to their flooded Bathtub. Their actions at the shelter and their fleeing is an exhibit more so of ignorant panic than deliberate calculated rebellion.
While the film attempts to elevate The Bathtub’s residents’ vigilance and preservation of land and customs as good things, it actually undercuts and undermines these postulations via regional and economic typecasting. Residents of The Bathtub, and by implication rural Southerners, are depicted as shiftless, unemployed, and alcoholic. In all their vehemence against modernity, the modern invention of alcohol thrives; rivers of it are drunk abundantly and to excess. At no time in the movie are the residents shown as resourceful. No one is shown working, farming, repairing, etc. While good-intentioned, what occurs instead is a morphing and caricaturing of them as boozy, loutish, and unconcerned. Rural southerners of few economic resources do not come across as resourceful, resilient, and innovative, as “make way or “make do” people. They are only and simply scavengers of the land succumbing to folly.
“Beasts’” attempt “to go deep” succumbs to the weight of doing it well. The intermixture of exploring how inhabitants of a bayou live out a belief of libertarianism/self-governance, complemented by Hushpuppy’s harkening of prehistoric times, makes the movie implode on itself. Blending these two threads falls short because the film tries to do so with underdeveloped arguments, ambiguous allegories, and unexplained symbols. The argument of all life being interconnected between time and space, and that responsibility must be exercised in preserving such connection, is imprecisely and vaguely explored. References to aurochs, their thawing out and their stampeding toward The Bathtub to restore order, are anachronistic. What does this specific group of animals who are not from the region or time period have to do with what is currently occurring? The presentation of aurochs as a symbol of the past coming to correct the present is obfuscated by myriad questions of why the writer and filmmaker selected this particular species. Combining these two storylines, one of the past coming to render judgment on the present, and the trials of survival within a specific bayou, creates cacophony rather than co-informed clarity. Such abstracted associations detract from what could otherwise be a potent message.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” sets forth on an ambitious experiment amalgamating several conflicts within one film. Character versus self, character versus nature, and character versus society each receive treatment and examination within a combinative narrative. As if not challenging enough, it valiantly explores them blending numerous genres, culling from avant-garde, fantasy, magical realism, ethnography, coming-of-age and memoir. Yet it is the scope of multiple conflicts and genre blending that eclipses its potential genius. As well, the film’s effort in exposing how race, class, gender and regionalism inform these conflicts and complicates their resolution is equivocal.