I have long held that movies are not the medium in which to exploit specific moments in past and current history. Those that are so inarguably nonfiction that they cannot be effectively fictionalized even by the most talented of filmmakers. Moments like 9/11, the LA Riots, and the Rwanda genocide. In my opinion, these are subject matter for documentaries—a medium that gives voice and power to truth, above all else. Still, some movie-makers will continue to insist, as is their right, that they can turn even the most grim event into a beautiful, artistic viewing experience for the common moviegoer. And every so often, they can. Such is the case with Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance winner “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
With its Basquiat-like art production and Americana setting, the film is unquestionably gorgeous looking. And Hushpuppy, the film’s 6-year old heroine, is the very picture of naive, seraphic beauty. Played by first timer Quvenzhané Wallis, Hushpuppy lives by herself as part of a forgotten but gallant bayou community in Louisiana called The Bathtub. She has her own house; her father lives in his house nearby, and there are others who have built shacks from scraps and boats from trucks.
The rest of the time, Hushpuppy wanders through shaded woods and dirty chicken coops in orange cotton underpants, a white tank top and white rubber rain boots, often while holding a stick. Her little brown legs, lean and taut, are bare throughout the entire film—she wears the same underpants, occasionally adds a pair of too-big denim cut-off shorts, and in the end is given a t-shirt dress. Her arms, too, are bare and filling fast with muscle as the story unravels, as she demonstrates later in the film, flexing with firm fists in the air after effectively destroying a crab for a goading audience of misfit onlookers. Her eyes are liquid and open, set in a perfectly round, smooth-skinned face. And of course, the hair — so central to a young black girl’s life, even one living in the margins—an unkempt afro, which intentional or not, clearly represents her determined and willful spirit.
Her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), however, exists in sharp contrast to his daughter. He is full of rage, heartbreak, illness, and apocalyptic angst. And yet, there is still something completely exquisite about his glistening dark skin and melancholy eyes. Hushpuppy’s mother, a beautiful woman who could make water boil just walking by it, has long since left them both for a light across the levee that separates them from civilization. Wink loves his daughter, who he calls “man” and “boss lady,” despite the gruff way he barks at her.
Based on a play by Lucy Alibar (who collaborated on the script with Zeitlin), “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is something like a Toni Morrison novel in its devouring imagery and vast emotional carnage. The characters are nuanced in their idiosyncratic gestures, and wear their individual complexities with ease and even joy. They are black and white, drunk and happy, young and old. They know about healing plants and catching crawfish. They eat with their hands, believe in an ancient creature called the auroch, and laugh a lot. They are a motley crew. But they look out for each other and throughout the film there is an enlightened sense of celebrating both individual freedom and loyal fellowship.
After “the storm” hits, when Wink is finally at his sickest, and government officials come to evacuate them all from the condemned land that is The Bathtub, Hushpuppy emerges not simply as the heroine but as the leader of her people. It seems we are left to believe that she will be all right — that we shouldn’t worry about her. But I do. I worry about a 6-year-old girl living in an isolated swamp, wearing the same underpants day after day, eating canned cat food and gravy, setting her house on fire, being abandoned repeatedly in ways both big and small, and only having been picked up, held, twice in her life.
In the end, Zeitlin succeeds in making a beautiful film based on an ugly moment in history. But not beautiful enough. With Hurricane Katrina as the film’s ominous backdrop, I couldn’t escape the notion that girls like Hushpuppy might actually have existed in its wake. Young black girls, facing death and loss, spirits on fire, guided by imagination, suddenly burdened with the unforeseen expectation to lead a pack of beasts in the Southern wild, and who would never be seen by the world, much less seen as beautiful.