The Brilliance and Banality of Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Movie Poster


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.


African American Maleness as Caricature and Courageous

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.


home squalor


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.

 Hushpuppy and Wink Eating


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, it 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 away rescue 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.


Wink at party


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 a devoted African American man and father.   Henry’s portrayal of Wink transforms Wink so that he emanates not with debilitation but with determination.

father and daughter


African American Femaleness as Object and Archetype

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 whom 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.


Mother Jersey


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 mother


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.   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.

To its credit, the film 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.


Meeting with Momma

Maternal surrogate


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 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.


Hushpuppy holding little chick


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 aspects and 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.


Hushpuppy alone


Hushpuppy white boots


Place-Based Identity and Regional Stereotypes

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.   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.  Hushpuppy at her young age recognizes and adopts the dichotomous distinction between “them” and “us.” 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:

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, a contaminant that will dismantle the residents’ way of life in The Bathtub. If allowed.  Modernity is foreign, equated with being adversarial, inimical and unhelpful. However, the residents of The Bathtub come across as imbecilic. The attempt to portray the residents as preservationists results in them coming across as ignoramuses. Even if modern means are the only ones that can save them, they will resist and refuse them.  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 at the shelter and their fleeing is an exhibit more so of ignorant panic than deliberate calculated rebellion.


Flee from Open Arms


Return to the Bathtub


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.   These rural southerners of few economic resources do not come across as resourceful, resilient, and innovative, as “make way” or “make do” people.  While good-intentioned on the part of the filmmakers, what occurs instead is a morphing and caricaturing of them as boozy, loutish, and unconcerned. They are displayed singularly as only and simply scavengers of the land succumbing to folly.


A Mash-up of Historicism and Mysticism?

The film’s 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.


Auroch and Hushpuppy

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. At best.


Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to or


As she models her

brand new brand name


in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 


or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” as Metaphor: The Search, Seizure, and Salvation of Humanity

(Spoiler alert, elements of the plot will be revealed.)

The movie “Prometheus” accomplishes more than serving as a prequel to the “Alien” series.  Ridley Scott did an incredible piece of work in assembling complex storylines and impressive settings to create an odyssey of intellectual, moral, and spiritual wanderings.  What unfolds before us, and within us, is an exploration what it means to be human: its best, brilliant, base and brutal aspects.  In this movie review/literary analysis, I discuss how these aspects of humanity are explored and excavated throughout the movie.  As a spoiler alert, some characters and parts of the movie are revealed . . .

The Search

“Prometheus” keenly conjures our need as humans to know and understand where we come from.  Are we created by our own decision? Are we created by higher powers? For what purpose?  These questions are what instigate archaeologists (husband and wife team) Shaw and Holloway to search the world for evidence of higher powers and origins greater than themselves, and business tycoon Weyland to coordinate their efforts along with his to find the source of humanity.  Yet while the search could be universally regarded as in the pursuit of greater good, not everyone’s goals for this search are universal and uniform.  Depending on the character, some like Shaw naively believe the mission is for promoting the greater good of all humankind, while others host singular selfish motivations exclusively for their personal gain.  Scott does complex surgical work in craftily interweaving characters’ agendas and ascents into a compelling mosaic of the symbiotic and parasitic relationships people form with one another toward the goal of knowing the origin of humans.

The Seizure

Not every character invests in a rightful and principled approach to acquiring an end goal.  While some offer and rely upon unconditional trust, others employ manipulation and deceit.  While some are selflessly motivated, others are myopically focused in achieving goals of personal gain, even at the harm and grave expense of others.  Enter the Weyland family: Peter Weyland, businessman and financier of the Prometheus expedition, Meredith Vickers who is both his daughter and the manager of the mission, and David, who while is an android, serves as a synthetic son and servant to both Weyland and Vickers.  Weyland personifies a king blind to whatever else exists strictly to pursue his ambition and emotional avarice.  He must meet his progenitor.  Even if it means exploiting his subordinate creation David, even if it means demoting his daughter to simply an unloved tool for his success, if there are costs and consequences to others, so be it.  Almost paralleling Shakespeare’s King Lear, Weyland’s offspring tell him the things he wants to hear, and comply with what he wants them to do, in an exploitation of that paternal relationship for self-seeking gain.  Yet Weyland is not a naïve king manipulated by his offspring. He too puts forth an agenda that exploits his offsprings’ talents toward his own self-serving end; David’s knowledge of the humanities and diverse languages, and higher order intelligence; Vickers singular allegiance to the completion of the mission and exacting leadership skills.

There is a predatory allegiance shared between Weyland, Vickers, and David.  Weyland’s offspring (Vickers literally, David metaphorically) each use their relationship with their paternal progenitor, their “father” for their personal gain. David cloaks the fulfilling of his own selfish ambitions under the fulfillment of his ailing and elderly progenitor’s dying wish to meet his own progenitor (whom Shaw has dubbed “The Engineers”).  For example, David seeks to be more human, using his benefactor’s access to resources to learn more about humans, spanning the benign such as researching their movies, languages, and grooming techniques.  He constantly works to reconcile wanting to be human yet being a creation of human hands. He is of them yet not of them, which is constantly made painfully clear in how others subordinate and disrespect him.

Consequently, David becomes progressively sinister in exploiting his benefactor, his resources and the crew he hired.  It is through his unique investigatory research that he tests his hypothesis of what exactly makes one human (and the extent he surpasses them). He commits inhumane experiments such as infiltrating sleeping crew members’ dreams, he detours from the expedition crew for his own explorations (and extractions of alien genetic material), and conducts genetic experiments upon unsuspecting crew members (introducing alien material unknowingly to their bodies).  David, though exploited, exploits his position as a subordinated son, gifted with intelligence and knowledge, to maneuver himself so that he researches humans, interacts with them, and uses them as leverage to explore and learn about both them and the Engineers.   Almost in the fashion of Shakespeare’s Richard III, as the younger brother Richard manipulates everyone to steal the throne from his older brother Edward, David manipulates any and everyone to ascend into a place knowing more about humankind than even humans know about themselves. Yet David and Vickers are not objectified offspring whose acquiesce goes gently into that good night of their father’s dream (and as it will turn out, their nightmares).  Both David and Vickers know their father’s disregard and relegation of them to servants to his dream, but still continue to vie for their progenitor’s affirmation.

Vickers, in Shakespearean fashion, shares a conflicting love of her father.  Weyland’s exclusive devotion to meeting his progenitor has alienated Vickers from him and caused the death of a father/daughter relationship, one that in some small part Vickers desperately wants as she demonstrates in one scene kneeling before him and kissing his hand (only to receive back his clinching knuckles).  It is a relationship of dedication yet saturated with venom and vengeance.  Like Hamlet who pursues the business of avenging his father’s death, and yet feels both love and scornful detest because of his mother’s actions (marrying his father’s murderer), Vickers’ actions too harbor both love and scorn of her father.  She asserts herself to the crew as the person who makes sure that everyone does their job to fulfill the mission (the double entendre being to get her father to meet his maker).  And, although Vickers secretly salivates to ascend the throne upon her father’s eminent death, she just as importantly seeks his love and affirmation.

Godlike and Messianic Complexes 

In many instances throughout the movie there is a seizure of others’ humanity for exploitation.  Weyland believes that he can buy himself into meeting his progenitors, financing a mission and manipulating the talents, convictions, and intentions of others to that end.   David believes himself deserving of respect and regard by his human counterparts, thinking himself at least equal and in many respects superior considering his learnedness of their knowledge, ideas, and habits.  However he is still relegated to not being human, treated as a subordinate, and most of all, remains out of place. As a result, David exploits the relationships they share with one another for his personal gain, even going so far as to compromise select crew members’ health in a test of the limits of their humanity. He also takes it upon himself to conduct covert explorations of the Engineer’s technology separate from the expedition and without full disclosure.


The Salvation of Humanity

Needless to say, the crew find themselves in harrying situations, both by their own design and outside forces.  It is through these times that Scott’s “Prometheus” illustrates the resolve that humans call upon to save fellow humans from harm or destruction.  Shaw calls upon her faith to inform her decisions about how to advance the good of humankind.  She demonstrates this throughout her work as a team member of the expedition.  Some realize in moments of peril the ultimate in sacrifices need to be made to serve and protect a greater good, a good that only they can provide.  Janek, the captain of the ship, answers such a crucial call, sacrifices himself and his crew so that others might be saved.  Holloway and Shaw each sacrifice their bodies so that harm does not come to the crew or beyond.  For others like David, upon realizing their past selfish actions have made for dire consequences, they avail their talents and resources wholeheartedly.

In all, “Prometheus” is a movie that compels one to not only reflect on the state of humanity on the outside (as we have much to contemplate given what is occurring worldwide), but also on the inside.  What makes us human? How do we know? What will we do when it is tested? Like any great movie, this one still leaves me with questions.  In the movie, why did the Engineers create humans, and then make the decision to destroy them? Exactly HOW does the myth of Prometheus connect with the topics and themes of the movie?


And finally, a question that I ponder outside the movie is this . . . can the search for the origin of humankind occur without first an examination of one’s own self?