“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012) and its critics

29 September 2012

I’ve been trying to write about Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild for weeks. Here’s my problem: I have read other people’s reviews, and I keep wanting to respond to them rather than to the film itself.

It’s not that I doubt my own response to the film. I found it a riveting story about the kind of childhood we never seen onscreen. It shows the world through the eyes of 6-yr-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), complete with ugliness, fantasy, and flickering glimpses of adult concerns. But other reviewers have focused on the film’s political stance in placing it in an overlooked Louisiana world that evokes but never mentions Hurricane Katrina, and in telling the story of a child who sometimes appears dangerously unprotected by the adults around her. These perspectives make me want to defend the film for what it is, not for what it might have been if someone else had made it.

Granted, criticism is tricky business, and I would be the first to defend the right to express one’s response to a film, even if that response deals more with the film’s role in the zeitgeist than its artistic merit. It goes without saying that I’d defend a critic’s right to express an unpopular opinion, perhaps even more so after the weird exchange last summer between the NY Times‘ David Carr and A. O. Scott about the role of criticism. In it, Carr attacks Scott for offering up unpopular opinions about film that Carr depicts as elitist; Scott tries to explain why that’s not the case. (For particular pleasure, see Jim Emerson’s great breakdown of all the logical fallacies Carr commits during the course of this exchange.)

In some ways I see film criticism in the same vein as I see my academic scholarship: as an honest attempt to further a longer conversation among people jointly concerned with finding something meaningful, something true about humanity.

I’d heard enough about Beasts of the Southern Wild to expect that it would be a movie about Hurricane Katrina, focusing on those people most abandoned by the social safety net — a community so far on the margins that it seems almost post-apocalyptic. And yet what I found was different. Rather, I marveled at its imaginative view of childhood. I never expected to walk out and think, “This is a film about America through a child’s eyes” — which was exactly how I felt.

I especially loved the way the film doesn’t try to offer an adult’s reality, but privileges Hushpuppy’s idiosyncratic perspective. Through her eyes, we spin a fantasy in our minds about her long-gone mother, thanks to a tale told by her father. We get angry with her father when he just disappears for a while, leaving her alone, only to return with evidence of a hospital stay about him (which she neither asks about nor understands). When she condenses all her fears and creates in her imagination a herd of giant boar-beasts, racing closer and closer to up-end and destroy her life and that of her community, we remember our own crystallized fears all too well from our own childhoods.

But then I started reading about people who walked out of theaters because they felt it displayed something damn near close to child abuse. (What?! I wondered.) Or because it romanticized poverty. (How is that degree of filth and poverty romantic?) Or a fantasy of racial harmony amongst whites and Blacks.

Most heartbreaking to me was the extensive takedown by superstar cultural critic bell hooks over at NewBlackMan (In Exile), who felt the film to be a “continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a small six year old black girl.” hooks finds nothing to admire here; she likens it to The Help (2011) for its racist and sexist stereotypes of Blacks. She even argues that “the camera toys with the child’s body pornographically eroticizing the image,” which I don’t see at all.

hooks’ takedown is so all-encompassing that I have a hard time knowing where to start in defending the film. I’ve been in her place before — having seen a film (like Greenberg) that everyone seemed to admire, yet which I found so resolutely misogynistic that I could not, would not, see any redeeming qualities.

But criticism is a conversation, yes? I cannot stop myself from insisting that hooks is just wrong. Of course I believe that everyone has different responses to a film’s artistic merit, political commitment, social context. hooks has ever right to hate the movie, to find it lacking. And I can argue that in both her vehemence and the substance of her specific criticisms, she has refused to see the film’s many virtues.

Beasts seems so significant to me because it tells a story about childhood (and America) through the eyes of a tiny Black girl — insisting that we see it on her terms. I didn’t see the film as being primarily about race; perhaps hooks’ true complaint is that it should have been. Instead, it’s about childhood, poverty, and self-determination — aspects of the lives of the characters which are inextricable from race, to be sure, yet in this case are more central to the story. True, Hushpuppy is not sensitive to the ways that race divides, perhaps because of her extreme youth (and perhaps because the director and writer didn’t want to tell the story that way). No matter the reason, this is not a story about a girl focused on the subject of race, and it seems unfair to demand that it be otherwise. Rather, Hushpuppy knows perfectly well that her community is threatened and that other, richer people are responsible.

If her worldview is not primarily oriented to race, it nevertheless seems vital to me that Zeitlin asks us to consider these matters via the person of a 6-yr-old Black girl, to see her as our heroine — which we do, effortlessly. I can’t help but feel this is sort of remarkable. I complain every single week about the fact that film offers so few opportunities for women, especially women of color, to get interesting parts. Well, here’s the best role for a Black female of the past five years — goddamn if I’m going to let it pass when someone says this character offends them, or that Hushpuppy is a mere cardboard cutout or racial type.

Stepping back, it occurs to me that my frustration with hooks’ full metal jacket bullet fired at this lovely film is related to my ongoing concerns about cultural criticism more broadly — both within and without the academy. I read too many critiques that are beautifully written, fervent and learned, yet which fail to understand as honestly as possible an artist’s actual work, to weigh fairly its successes and shortcomings, and attempt to place it in contexts that help us understand it better. hooks’ long piece certainly inflicts a wound on this film, but rather than hit the center of the target it has only done some damage to one of the film’s extremities — an arm, perhaps, or an ankle.

I must admit, however, in working up a righteous response to her vehement piece, I feel my critical juices flowing, my muscles tensing. Sometimes criticism really is about the back-and-forth. It’s all about the conversation. I do love the conversation, the way that criticism gives people the chance to debate.

So before I forget, let me note: what a find is Quvenzhané Wallis. Has any child actor ever inhabited her role so fully and with such genuine intensity as this one, from listening to the heartbeats of chicks and turtles to having an imaginary conversation with her long-gone mother? Wallis is now 8 and next year will appear in Twelve Years a Slave (2013). I can only hope she continues to have good luck with roles and directors and scripts, for she has a gift that could make her a truly great new child star.

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2 Responses to ““Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012) and its critics”

  1. servetus Says:

    *Really* interesting comments (yet again, on a film I haven’t seen). It sounds like the film hit a nerve with a lot of people — which suggests something about it is deeply true (and problematically disturbing), alongside its apparent beauty.


  2. […] has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of […]


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