Seldom in recent memory has a film got dazzling reviews of the magnitude of Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Bein Zeitlin and starring a riveting 6-year old, Quvenzhane Wallis. Currently at the Salem Cinema, the film received ratings of 5 (of 5) from such diverse publications as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times.
The film is emotionally powerful, a vision of a post-Katrina-like swampland under duress. But Beasts continues an unfortunate tradition of romanticizing destitute people as carefree and wise, and their harsh, bitter lives as jubilant and poetic. “Hushpuppy” (Wallis) and her dying derelict father are wretchedly poor black folk who live in filth and squalor, yet the neglected, unschooled child incessantly contemplates the imminent collapse of glaciers, the imagined raging of ice-age beasts, the beauty and horror of nature.
A privileged, white director (Zeitlin) and a privileged, white screenwriter (Lucy Alibar) take people who eat cat food, wear tatters and face bitter harshness daily, and make them speak the words of educated, cultured twenty-somethings. “Everybody loses the thing that made them; the brave men stay and watches it happen,” Hushpuppy intones. “Yeh gotta take care of people smaller an’ sweeter than y’all,” a bayou herbalist says.
The only reference to the clan’s lack of health care is when they defiantly (and violently) resist the efforts of rescue workers to relocate them and treat their illnesses. When millions in this country suffer for lack of medical care, the filmmakers seem clueless.
Admittedly, the film is meant to be mythic, not realistic. And it contains images that are breathtaking – acting by non-professionals that is impressive.
But it’s hard to embrace the forced poetic slant, this art-house vision where the poor love their squalor because it’s theirs. Apparently made by unapologetic lefties, the film reminds one of Barbara Bush’s post-Katrina comments on her visit to the Houston Astrodome, when she declared that the hurricane refugees had a very nice situation indeed.