A couple of weeks ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild got nominated for some big-time Oscar categories, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It’s the story of a little girl, Hushpuppy, living in rural Louisiana, a place they call the Bathtub, with her father. It’s off the grid kind of living and by the end of the movie, Hushpuppy has to find the strength to navigate that world on her own.
I saw the movie a few months ago, after hearing a lot about it and how vivid it was. Lots of critics loved it and have lauded it for its naturalistic scenes, its celebration of community, and its entry into folklore. Not to mention, who doesn’t love an underdog story of a first-time director filming people who had never before acted in post-Katrina Louisiana? And there is no denying that Quvenzhané Wallis (Hushpuppy) is a powerhouse on screen. She has a ton of presence and is cute as all get out in this interview with Andre Leon Talley:
But, the same day I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild, I also saw Chicken With Plums, Marjane Satrapi’s live-action movie based on the graphic novel of the same name. It was kind of an indie movie marathon day for me. Satrapi’s Persepolis, a movie that came out in 2007, is one of those movies that I grow to love more each time I see it, and I loved it a lot initially. Chicken With Plums mines the same geography as Persepolis: Iran. It begins with its lead character’s death and the movie tells the story of how that death occurred. What a downer, you might think. But, the movie, though it did make me cry, was achingly beautiful. A beautiful story with an inclination to view life, even this life that we know from the beginning will soon be over, as beautiful. Beasts of the Southern Wild, on the other hand, lacked even an ounce of beauty. The movie tackled the difficult subject of poverty (and we do probably talk about and deal with death better in this country than poverty) and wrenched sympathy from the viewer in shot after shot of Hushpuppy wandering the swamp in dirty underwear looking for her absent father. The shots meant to strike us as uplifting, as a kind of beautiful, like when Hushpuppy breaks into a crab all by herself, felt instead like sport, like poverty porn. A viewer can watch a scene of small triumph for a person who has been struggling and get off on it, derive pleasure from thinking that now all is well for that character and can leave the theater glad that you’re not one of them. Don’t even get me started on Precious.
A couple walked out of the screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild and I understood the inclination. The movie didn’t make me feel connected to Hushpuppy or the folks of the Bathtub. It seemed to be written and shot to make a viewer feel that they were apart from the characters. Welcome to the Freak Show, I seemed to be told during scenes showing the odd education the children receive, the wretched conditions they live in, or at the kind of love that’s between this father and daughter. The beauty of Chicken With Plums was the belief that the lead character’s story was worthy and that in the telling–even in the sad, inevitable end–there was beauty to be bestowed on any one who watched it. But, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, black and poor and disenfranchised was never made to feel worthy of any more than the pitying gaze of the moviegoer.
I left the theater trying to remember the last time I had seen a beautiful image of blackness in media, maybe I’ll just have to enjoy images like this all the more.