Mississippi Damned (Day #8)

 

Mississippi Damned is a rare, exceptional film, one that covers enormous amounts of emotional territory and manages to impart sadness and hope in equal measures.

Written and directed by Tina Mabry, who penned the hilarious Itty Bitty Titty Committee, the movie dives deep into the heart of the American south, with an unflinching eye towards racism and poverty. Based on true events, the drama is achingly, refreshingly real.

The film kicks off in 1986, and centers on the lives of two African American families and their closest friends, barely scraping by in a rural Mississippi town.

Our protagonist, Kari (played as a young girl by Kylee Russell and later by Tessa Thompson), who acts as our eyes and ears throughout the film.

She has a lesbian sister, Leigh (Chasity Kershal Hammitte), and a cousin Sammy (Malcolm David Kelley), who is a young basketball star.

Their parents and close friends are all struggling — with money, with addictions, with violent histories and difficult pasts.

Charlie (Jossie Thacker) is an alcoholic living with a man who sleeps around on her. Anna (Simbi Kali Williams) is pregnant and near saintly, keeping watch over Kari and feeding her when there’s no food in the house. She’s married to an abusive guy who doesn’t work, forcing her to take care of business.

Kari and Leigh’s folks scream at Leigh about her sexuality and constantly argue about money — their father Junior (Adam Clark) is a gambling addict.

Finally, Sammy is a promising young athlete looking at the possibility of a major scholarship and a pro career, but he’s forced to perform sex acts for money just to go on team trips.

There’s enough drama to fill about six seasons of General Hospital, with the tacking of such issues as rape, child abuse, domestic violence, illness, death, imprisonment, child molestation, addiction, mental illness and abandonment.

With that much weight — combined with the additional heaviness that comes with any examination of poverty — one would think that the film would crash under it’s own gravitas. But carried by strong performances and assured direction, Mississippi Damned flows very well.

The acting is excellent across the board, with exceptional turns from Thompson, Thacker, Williams and Kelley.

Drawing from the sharply written script, Thompson imbues Kari with such strength and spirit that it becomes impossible not to root for her, while Kelley does an excellent job playing a troubled young man on the edge of a very slippery slope. Thacker and Williams have meaty roles in the troubled Charlie and long-suffering Anna; and each and every cast member down to the bit parts is spot-on.

As the film goes on and the time period shifts to the late 1990s, the children grow older and begin to repeat the mistakes their parents have made — sometimes they make entirely new ones. The older generation struggles with all their former problems, with illness and age wearing them further.

It’s depressing, sure, but Kari somehow stays determined to grow into something more. She aspires to go to college and become a professional musician, even after she suffers from sexual violence at a young age and constant financial pressure to stay and help support her family.

Sammy and Leigh aren’t so lucky. Sammy’s NBA career doesn’t go as planned, and Leigh remains obsessed with Paula (Jasmine Burke), her high school sweetheart-turned heartbreak. Both begin to repeat the same patterns that got them into trouble in the first place.

As the picture’s primary lesbian character, Leigh is sympathetic and flawed (much like everyone else). At the beginning of the film, she’s a butch high school girl utterly in love with Paula, who is sexy and slinky — all smiles and flirtatious looks to Leigh, but keeping a boyfriend behind Leigh’s back.

Hammitte brings a great deal to the role. We genuinely feel for Leigh as her mother and father scold her for her “behavior.” We’re happy for her as she and Paula kiss innocently in the bedroom, and devastated when Paula shies away from her in public.

It’s the sort of heartbreak that most queer women have experienced before — presented with brutal honesty. How she deals with this event comes to define her as an adult.

Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is in its unwavering authenticity.

The movie shies away from very little, connecting all of the invisible dots that lie in between victims and abusers, shining light on the reasons why events have transpired the way they have. Violent scenes are staged and shot straight up, with a dynamic camera that refuses to pan away from the ugliness. Depictions of sexual violence are a bit more implicit — though no less disturbing.

Certainly, the realism applies to the more mundane details as well. Everything in the film breathes authenticity — the straight-out-of ’86 dance music, the slang, even the cars and dingy houses feel just right. Part of this lies in the excellent cinematography and obvious attention to detail, and part on the music and prop selection.

It’s difficult to find fault with Mississippi Damned — it’s clearly a personal, important piece of work from a very talented filmmaker.

This is one of the better dramas to released in 2009 — gay or straight — and it’s absolutely worth catching during its run on the LGBT and independent film festival circuits this summer.

Visit the film’s official website at mississippidamned.com

Beasts of the Southern Wild, A Hollywood Film With Roots on Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast (Day #7)

Beasts of the Southern Wild, A Hollywood Film With Roots on Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast, Opens Tomorrow

Jordan Flaherty

Earlier versions of this article originally were distributed via Agence France Presse, and in Louisiana Weekly.
The Gulf Coast loses a football field of land every 45 minutes, and much of that loss happens in the bayous of Southern Louisiana, where roads disappear into canals, winding their way through swiftly eroding marshes. The population here is a mix of white Cajuns, African-Americans, and several Native American tribes, and most residents can date their roots here to before Louisiana was part of the US.

Some families in this former French colony have only been speaking English for about a generation, and recall childhoods lived mostly outside of the system of monetary exchange: their family ate only what they could catch or grow, and lived in homes they built themselves on land handed down across generations. There are few shops here, and many of the homes are built on stilts, a dozen feet or more off the ground, to defend against the flooding that becomes more common with every foot of land that vanishes.

The nearest movie theater is about an hour away, but on Sunday night 600 people filled the local recreation center for a Hollywood premiere. Beasts of the Southern Wild, a feature recently acquired by Fox Searchlight, was shot in this rural community in 2010 by a filmmaking collaborative from New Orleans. The film has already won critical acclaim and top prizes at the Sundance and Cannes festivals, and been celebrated as an early Oscar contender. Now, a few days before the film’s release, the crew has come home.

Beasts tells the story of a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was six years old at the time of filming) and her father Wink (Dwight Henry, a 47-year-old Baker from New Orleans who like most of the cast had never acted before), struggling to survive in a magical but disappearing community called the Bathtub.

Beasts captures the vibrancy and complexity of a Louisiana community that refuses to abandon lands being lost to coastal erosion and threatened by hurricanes and oil spills. The film’s themes were given a greater intensity by real-world events: on the first day of filming, the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded not far from here, killing 11 workers, blackening beaches and marshes in five US states and devastating fishing and local economies.

The threat of disaster, both natural and man-made, constantly hovers over this region. The oil spill came as people were still rebuilding homes destroyed in the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The film premiered here as tropical storm Debby churns through the Gulf, causing warnings and raising fears in coastal communities from Florida to Texas.

A far as Montegut may seem from the modern world, much of Beasts was shot even further south of here, on the other side of the levees that provide some protection from the frequent storms. Isle de Jean Charles, site of some the films’ most enduring images, is home to just a couple dozen families, mostly from the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe. Their houses can only be reached by traveling across a narrow road that even on the best of days is half-submerged by water coming from both sides.

For months, the cast and crew lived here and were embraced as family. Everyone in this close-knit community pitched in; appearing in the film, helping to build the sets, or feeding the cast and crew.

“They captured, touched, a little part of what its like to be down here,” said Michael Pitre, who runs a mechanic shop here and helped work on the boats used in the film. “As far as living of the land like we do. When I was coming up, that’s what we ate: shrimp, crabs. That’s all we had to eat. That’s all we could afford because we would catch it ourselves.”

Benh Zeitlin, the film’s director and cowriter, agrees. “It is all real,” he said. “I don’t think I invented anything for this movie. It’s all things that I’ve seen and heard and experienced in different parts of Louisiana, and it’s all kind of concentrated on this one island in the film.”

Dwight Henry, who plays his lead role with a passionate intensity, feels this community’s struggle to recover from recent disasters and displacement is the same as that faced in New Orleans, where more than 100,000 former residents still have mot returned since the 2005 storms. “We so resilient down here,” he said. “We going to refuse to leave the land that we live and love, and the things we built with our bare hands.”

Although Beasts is fantastical and mysterious, it moves with the propulsion of the best action films, and the crowd was clearly moved, laughing at the humorous moments and holding their breath at dramatic scenes. For Zeitlin, this is always the audience he pictured seeing the film, not New York arthouses or Cannes. He said he and his crew never dreamed they’d have Hollywood distribution – they imagined themselves touring around the US, showing the film in community centers.

As the credits rolled, the room erupted in a sustained applause. Zeitlin took the stage to thank everyone who helped, and invited all in attendance to an afterparty at the local Lions Club, a community space next door. “This was what was in my head for two years when we were editing, said Zeitlin, as he accepted hugs and congratulations. “I feel finished with the film for the first time.”

Pictures above from Beasts of Southern Wild premiere in Montegut, featuring director Benh Zeitlin, star Quvenzhané Wallis, and other cast, crew, and audience members.

No Love in the Wild (Day #7 – Beasts of Southern Wild)

No Love in the Wild

by bell hooks | special to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
An often repeated assertion in the body of film criticism I have written is the assertion that movies do not just mirror the culture of any given time; they also create it With this assertion in mind I leaving a viewing of the film Beasts of the Southern Wilds deeply disturbed and militantly outraged by the images I have just seen. Having traveled with friends an hour to see this acclaimed movie, I have no way home if I leave the cinema; there were images in the movie that I just did not want inside my head.  Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn tells students that putting images inside our heads is just like eating. And if “you are what you eat” it is equally true that to a grave extent we are what we see. Having read wonderful reviews of the film, pushed by friends and colleagues alike to see it, I was amazed that what I saw, they did not see. The majority of folks I talked with, like the reviewers, praised the film’s compelling cinematography, the magical realism, and the poetics of space. In his long affirming review in the New Yorker critic David Denby praises the film, calling it a “vibrant feature.”
Sadly, all the vibrancy in this film is generated by a crude pornography of violence. At the center of this spectacle is the continuous physical and emotional violation of the body and being of a small six year old black girl called Hushpuppy (played by the ten year old actress Quzenhane Wallis). While she is portrayed as continuously resisting and refusing to be a victim, she is victimized. Subject to both romanticization as a modern primitive and eroticization, her plight is presented as comically farcical.  Some audiences laugh as Hushpuppy, when enraged at the antics of her disappearing alcoholic oftentimes abusive wild man dad Wink, burns her shanty house. Initially, she hides from the fire in an overturned cardboard box until Wink rescues her by fiercely yelling mean spirited words that both frighten her and lead her to run for her life; in that moment she is more terrified of her raging dad than she is of the fire.
Hushpuppy has a resilient spirit. She is indeed a miniature version of the ‘strong black female matriarch,’ racist and sexist representations have depicted from slavery on into the present day. Like the unrealistic racist/sexist stereotypical images of grown black women in the recent blockbuster film The Help who confront all manner of exploitation and oppression only to triumph in this ridiculous macabre fantasy of modern primitivism, Hushpuppy is a survivor. From the onset of the film, she is depicted as a wild child, so at home in the natural wild of the Gulf of Mexico bayou world where black and white po’ folks create their own community affectionately called the Bathtub. This is the territory they claim as a renegade place of belonging. It is a total homemade world of make do, use whatever you got to survive.
Nature is the most compelling force in the world of the Bathtub. In this world there is no us-against-them mentality when it comes to human and nature. Instead there is an intimate merger so complete celebration of their collective feral animal nature binds everyone in a sacred contract; they are to resist domestication and civilization at all costs. As Diane Ackerman states in her short essay “Natural Wonder;” “Nature is both personal and panoramic, including a profound sense of our animal essence…All of our being juices, flesh, and spirit is nature. Nature surrounds, permeates, effervesces in, and includes us. At the end of our days, it deranges and disassembles us… There, once living beings, we return to our non-living elements, but we still and forever remain a part of nature.” As explanation this declaration provides the metaphysical backdrop for the role nature plays in Beasts of the Southern Wild. The natural setting that serves as poignant poetic backdrop is real and imaginary in the film. Hushpuppy finds solace in natural wildness, listening to the heartbeat of animals, envisioning her connection to a primordial world, what anthropologist Carl Sauer calls “the world before the coming of the white man.” Hushpuppy has visions of a natural world humans are destroying. And even though the other black and white members of the Bathtub community do not share her visions they share the commitment to remain in the wild even as the waters rise. It is the survivalist narrative that seems to most enchant viewers of this film, allowing them to overlook violence, eroticization of children, and all manner of dirt and filth. Just as television audiences remain glued to their seats watching the reality shows that focus on humans struggling against harsh unnatural circumstances and each other to survive, audiences of Beasts of the Southern Wild enjoy this same rush. As in these everyday television survivalist narratives, humans in the film are both at one with nature even as they are  potential victims of a harsh natural world that respects no categories of race, class, or gender.  Of course the message that only the strong survive has been and remains an age old argument for politics of domination, that determine that some folks will live and others will die, that the strong will necessarily rule over the weak.
For many folks who see this film it is the mythic focus that enchants. And yet it is precisely this mythic focus that deflects attention away from egregious sub-textual narratives present in the film. Writing about the role of myth n popular media that makes use of race in his book White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness critic Maurice Berger contends: “Despite the visual sophistication and supposed vigilance of a media-oriented culture …Western commentators, critics, and academics seem no to realize how duplicitous words and images can be. They simply do not understand how myths work, how myths hold us hostage to their smooth elegant fictions. The subject of race, perhaps more than any other subject in contemporary life feeds on myth…. Myth is the book, seamless narrative that tells us the contradictions and incongruities of race and racism are too confusing or too dangerous to articulate. Myths provide the elegant deceptions that reinforce our unconscious prejudices. Myths are the white lies that tell us everything is all right, even when it is not.” Deploying myth and fantasy we are shown a world in Beasts of the Southern Wild where black and white poor folks live together in utopian harmony.  No race talk, no racial discourse disturbs the peace.
Only Hushpuppy has a philosophical take on why the world is the way it is, but she like everyone else denies the reality of race. Relying on myth and fantasy to survive day to day, this six-year-old prophet shares that we must experience our interdependence and oneness with all living beings and with the past, present, future.  When the big primordial black beasts of her imagination come to confront her she speaks to them declaring “you’re my friends sort of.”  With this statement she acknowledges that nature is both friend and enemy.  For it is the powerful waters of nature that threaten the entire world of the Bathtub leaving death in its wake.  That Hushpuppy has this advanced state of cosmic consciousness is one of the fanciful and irritating aspects of the film. She is only six years old. Of course in the mindset of white supremacy black children no matter their age are always seen as miniature adults.”
Even though black and white folks who are different share space and live in harmony, embracing the notion that their solidarity is tooted in fierce independence, in the willingness to live beyond the law in a world where they make their own rules. Even though such utopian values are depicted as awesomely positive in the film, ultimately it is patriarchal masculinity that rules, that makes the decision. The more crazed, reckless, and violent the alpha male’s behavior the greater his control and dominance. In the closed community of the Bathtub Hushpuppy’s father Wink is the undisputed leader despite the fact that he is almost always ranting and raging with bottle of booze in hand. His male companions are all drinking buddies. Women, whether black or white, drink but say very little; they do not question male authority. When they do speak whether in their role as teacher of prostitute they are simply imparting to children a crude message of self-reliance. They teach the children that they can count on no one.
Hushpuppy’s father is the most vocal advocate of a lawless reckless independence. Wink is the representative hard badass black man. His character is a composite of all the racist/sexist hateful stereotypes that mass media projects about black masculinity. In his study of black masculinity From Jim Crow to Jay Z, Miles White reminds readers from the onset of their appearance in films black males were portrayed as “brute or the folkloric bad nigger figure, a lawless man, feared by black and whites alike.” White explains that black male bodies are consistently used in cinema to represent the “brute who is immune to physical and emotional pain.” Even though he is sick and dying from an unnamed disease that causes him to cough and spit blood he remains the ruthless leader of the pack; his hard badness made evident in matter large and small  (whether orchestrating the bombing of the levy or in violent attacks on his little daughter).
Indeed, one of the most disturbing scenes in the film highlights Wink’s dominance and control over everyone, especially Hushpuppy. All the members of the Bathtub community are sitting at the dinner table drinking booze eating fresh crabs. White and black together are all happily drinking and eating. One of the grown white males attempts to show Hushpuppy the ‘proper’ way to extract the meat. Watching this Wink erupts into a volcanic rage and screams at Hushpuppy to BEAST IT (i.e. break the crab in half with her bare hands and suck the meat out.) Hushpuppy’s mood shifts from that of happy-go-lucky child to one of fear and terror.  All the grown folks watch as she struggles to obey the commands of the father chanting loudly BEAST IT. When she succeeds everyone cheers that she is the man. She holds her arms in the air as though she is a prizefighter who has just won a fight.  And is told, “you’re the man.”
This transgender casting of Hushpuppy as sometimes representing maleness and sometimes femaleness is the constant image when the film begins. From the onset of the movie the camera highlights the back of the child’s body wearing a thin white undershirt and orange boy briefs leading onlookers to wonder are we seeing a boy or a girl. Again and again the camera zooms in on Hushpuppy’s behind. We see her gleefully running and jumping. Audiences wait for a gendered identity to be revealed. Clearly the camera toys with the child’s body pornographically eroticizing the image.
Lucy Alibar, the white female playwright who wrote Juicy and Delicious a play set in Georgia, was clear with this drama, which served as the creative foundation for Beasts, that her protagonist was a ten-year-old boy. With her directing partner Benh Zeitlin she changed the setting to a Louisiana bayou and the star of the show became a six year old black girl. And it is mighty odd that the story by Doris Betts from which the film derives its name has one of the most sexist and racist representations of black masculinity in contemporary southern literature. Given the recent mega success of films featuring southern black females this choice has an opportunistic flavor. And as with the other films, like The Help, representations of black folks are re-mixes of old racist and sexist stereotypes. Images of Hushpuppy echo those of Buckwheat from the once popular television show Our Gang.
Throughout Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wink acts as though he would prefer Hushpuppy to be male. His affectionate gestures towards her are often given as a reward for her enactment of meaningless violence especially when she mimics the behavior of a raging patriarchal male, which Wind personifies. Indeed, gender is performance in the film. When Hushpuppy and all the residents of the Bathtub are ‘rescued’ and taken to a shelter we see her transformed – clean, hair combed and plaited wearing a dress. In that moment she represents perfect domesticated tamed girlhood. But the film soon reminds us this is not the ‘real’ Hushpuppy who as soon as she breaks free of civilization will return to her feral untamed transgendered self. Queer theory helps everyone to understand gender as performance.  In an essay on queer theory specifically focusing on the work of Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam writer Jeffrey Williams talks about the ways she /he ‘complicates gender.’  He contends: “whether gender was constructed or natural; it implied a given content; a performance suggested a temporal act.”
Without healthy parenting Hushpuppy has no human being who offers her object constancy; she finds her grounding in nature. Presented as a child of the wild she basically parents herself. Her mama is absent.  Made visible only by Wink’s reminiscence of their sexual bond which he unabashedly shares with Hushpuppy as though he is speaking with another grown person; there are no full frontal camera shot of the mother. Just as the camera focus on the behind of the child wearing her boy briefs, Wink identifies Hushpuppy’s mother by her ass.  She is portrayed as wearing white boy briefs. Talking nostalgically to Hushpuppy about her mother Wink defines her by her hot sexuality. Again the focus is on her behind, which is so sexually ‘hot’ Wink tells Hushpuppy that when her mama enters the kitchen, her hot ass turns on burners on the stove, boiling water, making the oven hot. Again as with Hushpuppy the camera zooms in on the mother’s ass.
In the absence of the body and being of the mother to establish object constancy, to teach her ‘female roles’ showing her own to live as a female in the wild, Hushpuppy projects that she hears the voice of the mother guiding her. Talking to the imaginary mother Hushpuppy places a sports jersey on a chair as symbolic mother and then the conversation begins. The jersey suggests symbolic deconstruction of gender. Without the body and being of the mother to help Hushpuppy establish a sense of self she dares to symbolically give birth to the mother by giving her a voice. We never know what silences the voice of the mother just as there is no explanation for her absence.
When the girls of the Bathtub are ‘rescued’ by a white male looking for survivors of the storm they are taken to a juke joint/whore house identified first by the neon sign announcing “girls, girls, girls.” Like so much else that makes no sense in this film it is not clear why the wise little Hushpuppy comes aboard this boat and allows her and her friends to be taken by a white male stranger arousing fears in the onlooker that the girls are destined to be the victim of a male sexual predator. However, at the juke joint it are grown women, white and black, who touch and hold the girls in ways that are inappropriate, at times maternal then sexual. Adult male sexual predators are observers of these interactions. Hushpuppy is ushered into a private room where a sexy good-looking black woman assumes a maternal role towards her, holding her, cooking her food.
When this new symbolic mother, who like the biological mom has no name, holds the small girl in her arms, cradling her, Hushpuppy says: “I can count on two hands the times when I’ve been lifted up.” This is the bold declaration that lets viewers know that Hushpuppy suffers psychologically from the traumatic pain in her childhood, that she is wounded by life with a violent raging alcoholic father, by the loss of her mother, and ultimately the death that will claim her dad. But she is only given cooked food and emotional shelter for a brief moment in time. With this feeding she is also given a lesson in survival, told that she has only her self to count on, that no else will be there for her, that she must be ‘strong.’ This is certainly the message black females have received in the culture of imperialist capitalist white supremacist patriarchy from slavery on into the present day.
Wink teaches his daughter showing emotions is a sign of weakness, that she must be tough. When she cries because her daddy is dying, he tells her to let those tears go. Parent and child roles are reversed, Hushpuppy becomes the pseudo adult hospice caregiver easing her father’s passage back to the watery womb of nature At times Wink is affectionate and caring towards his child but rage always engulfs their brief bittersweet positive encounters. Engaged in brutal acts of repressing emotions or acting them out, Wink is a hard man without any boundaries. His pain and his pleasure are a constant mix and his mood shifts are as erratic and unplanned as the storms that threaten everyone’s well being. Of course after his rage passes like the storms in the natural world there is silence, calm, peace.
Hushpuppy finds her place of solace of calm in constructing a mythic life as she can have no meaningful grounding in reality. Her strength lies in cultivating the imaginary and living life as fantasy. Mirroring Wink she is trapped in a state of arrested development. Wink and his fellow inhabitants of the Bathtub choose to see their emotional responses as mystical revelations, as the primal blood speaking at the core of their being. Concerned with remaining always in touch with his untamed nature writer D. H. Lawrence provides a manifesto that can easily refer to the community values of the Bathtub declaring: “My religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect.  We can go wrong in our minds but what our blood feels and believes and says is always true.” In keeping with this emotionality of the blood Wink is dying of an unnamed disease that causes him to spit blood. Not only must Hushpuppy feed and comfort him, she (not his adult male drinking, not even the adult white male whom Winks declared will be her new father when he is gone assist or comfort her. Hushpuppy does not respond to this announcement, the white male does not claim her or help her build the floating funeral pyre where Wink lies awaiting his return to nature.
As she is throughout this film Hushpuppy is again abandoned. It is a major mystery that moviegoers adore this film and find it deeply moving and entertaining. Amid many real life tragedies of adult violation of children (i.e. Penn State,) violations that subject small children to verbal abuse, physical and psychological violence’ sexual assault, it is truly a surreal imagination that can look past the traumatic abuse Hushpuppy endures and be mesmerized and entertained by Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Ultimately this film expresses a conservative agenda.  Before audiences had a clue about its content, the notion that it was somehow a radical response to Katrina circulated. But there is nothing radical about the age-old politics of domination the movie espouses – insisting that only the strong survive, that disease weeds out the weak (i.e. the slaughter of Native Americans,) that nature chooses excluding and including. If Wink represents the dying untamed primitive then what does Hushpuppy represent. Her fate is unclear. Given all that she endures she may just end up being the mad black female, talking to herself, wandering in a wilderness of spirit so profound that she is forever lost.
No wonder then that seeing this film causes some of us to feel a deep sense of hurt and remembered pain.  Sorrow for all the lost traumatized children, but especially abused and abandoned black children, whose bodies become the playing fields where pornographies of violence are hidden behind romantic evocations of mythic union and reunion with nature. In the end there is no one to lift these small bodies up, to call down from the skies a healing grace that can redeem and set free. R and B artist Jackie Wilson sang of a love that lifts one higher. For Hushpuppy and those like her, there is no love, no hands holding on, just a blank emptiness onto which any mark can be placed, any fantastical story written. All along the way Hushpuppy has not been at the center of Beasts of the Southern Wild. She is marginalized; she is a backup singer. No wonder then, so few listeners fail to choose a standpoint where they might witness her suffering or hear her ongoing anguished lament.
***
bell hooks is Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College. Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, she has chosen the lower case pen name bell hooks, based on the names of her mother and grandmother, to emphasize the importance of the substance of her writing as opposed to who she is.  She is the author of over thirty books, many of which have focused on issues of social class, race, and gender. Her latest book is titled Belonging: A Culture of Place. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild – The Romance of Precarity II (Day #7)

This film should have been a choice text for me; I love post-apocalyptic stories that end badly. But the heaps of critical praise the film has garnered don’t even seem to notice it as a dystopia. “This movie is a blast of sheer, improbable joy,” writes the New York Times, and calls it a great film to see for July 4, as it is “animated by the same spirit of freedom it sets out to celebrate.” It also likens Hushpuppy to a new Huck Finn.[1]  Quvenzhané Wallis, the then six-year-old actress who plays Hushpuppy, has now been nominated for an Oscar. While I support the recognition of black talent (though I don’t believe that the power of media representation stands in for any social equity) I am deeply suspicious of why she is being so celebrated. This isn’t the first case of black children being depicted as insensitive to pain, or of black suffering and survival being used to symbolize American democracy.
With its dystopian landscape, the film evokes the precarity, instability and vulnerability of black life. The first shot of the film is of a shack, tipping on rickety foundations, with a door that, if you exited from it, would drop you at least fifty feet to the ground. But the film’s disenfranchised subjects, black and white, are not victims, the film insists. Hushpuppy, her father Wink and the rest of the residents of the Bathtub are brave survivalists, refusing the life of the “Dry World,” whose practices are in opposition to the laws of the universe. Modern man’s misuse of the planet has led to ecological devastation so severe it has called forth the horrible Aurochs, Paleolithic monsters long frozen in the ice of the South Pole, as well as a terrible storm which will inevitably destroy the Bathtub. But the decision made by Wink and the other residents to stay, despite the coming storm, is politicized as an enlightened awareness and love of the free world, some kind of contract of natural man with an awful God, a righteous ascetic renunciation. The film romanticizes their abject poverty. Its wild magical realism, unlike that of Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro to which it has been compared, aestheticizes the filth and destruction around them with major chords of saturated bright color.
The film calls this poverty freedom. But I don’t recognize this freedom. Their existence isn’t active or sustainable. It is bleak, grim and grimy, the characters’ self-destructive forms of coping painfully insufficient. This is no maroon society, nor is it like any community of generationally poor people in the US or the global south I have ever seen. Instead the film recapitulates the continuing currency of black suffering, and acts as a kind of “crisis porn,” showing how black pain is erotically charged.
With a heroic soundtrack, composed by the filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, the film thinks itself a grand epic in the naturalist tradition, depicting how people, stripped to bare life, both struggle against and embrace nature in its cruelty and majesty. They provide a lesson for us all; we must renew our relationship with the natural world by recognizing our animal essence and releasing the beast in all of us. We must go back and remember what it took for early man to survive if we are to continue as a species.
The film is grounded in a particular version of primitivism. It oozes a primordial mud that covers everything. At the schoolhouse, the teacher gives a lecture to the children on survival, pulling up her skirt to reveal a tattoo of primitive drawings, from, as she says, “back when we all lived in the caves.” They depict early man’s battles against the Aurochs. “Y’all better learn how to survive, now,” is the moral of the lesson.
Hushpuppy, in her grime-covered and half-naked childlike innocence, embodies the Western fantasy of the primitive. With her whimsical exploration of the world, her little head tipped to one side as she listens to the heart of chick, or a hog, or her father, she narrates for us the wisdom of the ages, delivering the primitive’s message to mankind. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” is her refrain throughout the film. “If one piece is busted, the entire universe will get busted,” she warns. With her innate understanding of the beauty, precarity and cruelty of nature, Hushpuppy is able to tame the Aurochs. “‘Beasts’ is film as natural mystery museum,” reads a review, and I did feel as if I were standing before a panorama of early man and mammoth.[2]  This sense of the noble savage is clearly marked by Hushpuppy. “If daddy kill me, I ain’t gonna be forgotten. I’m recording my story for scientists in the future,” she says.
Like Hushpuppy’s father raging against the storm, gun in one hand and bottle of gin in the other, the film’s narrative core is the politics of the black family, circling around the stability, or lack of stability, in the black home. Like the critically acclaimed film Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009) its narrative is an American ur text in its staging of the black family as pathological, riven with violence and dysfunction. The poor are diseased; Precious’s mother with AIDS and Hushpuppy’s father with a mysterious illness that also affects his blood. Most of all, the poor cannot afford to love. “I can count the times I been lifted on two fingers,” say Hushpuppy.
I had a compelling conversation with a colleague who insisted that the film was self aware, posing such pain and chronic catastrophe of poverty as unresolvable, and that the film showed a triumph of the disenfranchised to create community. I don’t grant the film that complexity. I just wanted to give Hushpuppy a bath, and take her in my arms.

Footnotes:

  • [1] A.O. Scott, “She’s the Man of This Swamp,” New York Times, June 27, 2012, C1.
  • [2] Lisa Kennedy, “Bracing Beauty.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild – The Romance of Precarity (Day #7)

 
After the opening shot of a dilapidated house, Beasts of the Southern Wild begins mise-en-scène with a tight close-up of the house’s interior, the screen filled with small brown crossed legs, a cluttered dirty floor, and a small brown hand holding a dirty bowl, and pouring water on a mound of dirt.  The camera pans up and we see the hand belongs to a little girl who is holding in her other hand a baby bird that she places gently in the dirt clod she’s been molding.  Then we’re outside with her leaning into the strong wind; she’s dressed only in an undershirt, underpants, and rubber boots. Listening to the heartbeat of a chicken, we hear her thoughts about the hidden language of heartbeats. We get Hushpuppy as the heart of the film.
 
The story that became Beasts underwent two transformations. Lucy Alibar first wrote the play Juicy and Delicious about a young white boy and his dying father. Then that play was transformed through Alibar’s “attempt to detangle her own complicated relationship with her father in the midst of his serious illness” into the screenplay for Benh Zeitlin’s film that centers on a young black girl and her dying father in a community called the Bathtub in coastal Louisiana. This last transformation and the introduction of black characters into the screenplay does the work of naturalizing their precarity.  And the introduction of black characters at the center of the film and into communities that, as I understand from colleagues who are from Louisiana, are in reality white makes their precarity unreadable as precarity. 
 
Hushpuppy and Wink are at one in and with the dirt. When such stark images appear in televised “Save the Children” ads they might move some viewers to want to help Sally Struthers feed and care for little black children, but in the US, domestic blackness rarely results in something like empathy. So Hushpuppy and Wink’s blackness in the film is necessary and not incidental; it is at the heart of the “structural antagonisms” at work on and off the screen.  An antagonism that structures an inability to see the black, that “rather than merely a willful refusal,” is a “structural prohibition.”[1]
 
In a brief blog post titled “Becoming Wild,” Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that Beasts “has the dramatic achievement of being perhaps the first film to create a means to visualize climate resistance” and it  “give[s] us a way to begin to imagine wild alternatives to governmentality, without sentimentalizing the prices that have to be paid for that. By mixing magical sequences with cinematic realism, it does for climate resistance what Pan’s Labyrinth did for anti-fascism.”  The wilding Mirzoeff references here has to do with uncultivated, undomesticated plant life (think Topsy the plant and the violated child) and also undisciplined ways of seeing, what he calls a “wild view.” But because this view, this optic, is unraced in Mirzoeff’s account he can posit a “we” that resists climate change and governmentality and that is mobilized primarily through the characters of Hushpuppy and Wink.  This “we” resists contending with and “papers over any contemplation of violence as a structuring matrix–and weds us to the notion of violence as a contingent event.”[2]
 
Mirzoeff never mentions race, but that this film (or/as “wilding”) works for so many viewers has everything to do with the black bodies at its center; bodies that index those other primarily black bodies set adrift in the devastation and devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but also those working class black bodies and people who, in this culture, have continually marked a space of joy, of “making a way out of no way” and access to something like freedom (primitivism) in spite and in the face of…everything.  But those bodies also index the other definition of wilding, one that entered the lexicon in 1989 when five young black men were railroaded and wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape of a young white woman in Central Park.  That’s how I came to understand wilding and it was a term that many people, across race, adopted to describe young black people as animals, feral and undomesticated.
 
It may be that “[d]isaster, survival and the physical deprivation that comes with it can, it is suggested, generate meaningful alternatives.” But at least part of the disaster on view here is everyday black life lived in the wake of slavery and neither this film nor many of its viewers actually account for that life as disastrous
 
If one sees this film primarily as a way to visualize resistance to climate disaster then that requires that one have no desire to alleviate Hushpuppy’s devastation; have no desire to care for a child who says, “I can count the times I been lifted on two fingers.”  And in that absence of care the film reveals the structural antagonism to be feeling for the figure of the black.  The film needs black bodies because how else could incipient sexual and other violence, the violence of extreme poverty, flooding, the violence of a six-year old girl child living alone in her own ramshackle house with no mother or father, be inspiring and not tragic?  How else could it “just be” with no backstory, no explanation? (We should think about casting choices for Beast and Precious next to those made in films like Winter’s Bone and Bastard Out of Carolina to see the difference that race makes.)
 
How does a little black girl child orphaned and abandoned become a vision for climate resistance for so many people who watched the film?  It is precisely this kind of misprision, this not feeling or seeing, that subtends  an event like the death of Glenda Moore’s sons during Hurricane Sandy.  Riffing on Invisible Man, optic white does not see your plight. 
 
The film ends with Hushpuppy, six, years, old, motherless, fatherless, kinless, leading a group of black and white children and adults through a causeway after pushing her father’s corpse out to sea.  She is caretaker, man, boy, girl, woman all within herself; she is part of the community but complete unto herself. Abandoned to precarious life. 
 

Footnotes:

  • [1] Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, III, “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2003) 183–201 (189–190).
  • [1] Frank Wilderson Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) 249.