“Beasts” Sheds Light on Poverty in America

Ending poverty used to be a mainstream element of our national political discourse. The War on Poverty was the central tenet of LBJ’s Great Society. Bobby Kennedy, when running for president, spoke often of the impoverished, as did Bill Clinton, who was able to use his humble upbringing to great political advantage. Of course, more recently, former Senator John Edwards made ending poverty a central element of both his 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, and we all know how that turned out.

Yes, poverty has become a sort of third rail in Democratic politics. Candidates do not talk about it because the subject opens them up to criticism about their own personal wealth; John Edwards, who was deemed a hypocrite by the media for working to end poverty while living in a house the size of a small island, found that out the hard way. But perhaps more to the point – people living in abject poverty do not vote in large percentages, so a candidate’s plan to end poverty only appeals to those upper and middle-class voters who view the issue as a moral obligation. And in difficult economic times, sadly, most voters are only looking out for themselves.

Impoverished people can not often go to the movies either, so perhaps it is no surprise that their demographic is under-represented in the world of cinema. The few movies that do focus on the plight of the poor – like 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness” – are almost always about an individual’s battle to escape their class. This kind of narrative is far more likely to appeal to the upper and middle classes who go to the movies often; these movies reinforce their lack of interest in helping the poor by demonstrating that it is possible for those living in poverty to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. This is why most studio movies about the poor lean conservative in their messaging.

All of which makes “Beasts of the Southern Wild” a small miracle of a film. The story takes place in a fictional island just behind the levies of New Orleans called the Bathtub, where a small, diverse colony of indigent families and individuals live, hunt for food, and play. Their lives could not be more meager; our hero, a five-year old girl named Hushpuppy, lives with her father in a shack. They raise chickens for food but are sometimes forced to eat cans of cat food. There is a small school in the neighborhood, but their curriculum eschews text books. The children are taught what they really need to know in life: that one day soon, the waters will rise and the Bathtub will be swallowed by the sea.

The allusions to climate change are important. In real life, the ocean levels are rising and there has been an increase in extreme weather events like storms, twisters, and wildfires. As these events escalate, it will be the poor who are affected the most. “Beasts of a Southern Wild” explains their suffering in real and vivid terms, yet still manages to leave viewers on a note of optimism.

Such a storm hits, and the water rises sooner than expected. Because the residents of the Bathtub live just outside the levies, all of the water runs toward them, flooding their town. She and her father – and some of their friends – refuse to flee, and they wait out the storm. When it passes, their entire town is flooded, and the little that they own has been destroyed. The allusions to Hurricane Katrina are unmistakable, but, in this case, no one is coming to save them, and there are no news reporters sharing their suffering with the world.

The bond between Hushpuppy and her father carries the film. At first, he comes off as a monster: drinking, disappearing for days on end. But as the film goes on, we learn how important their relationship is. It is almost all they have. While Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only four years old when the film was made, has been receiving the lion’s share of the credit for her portrayal of Hushpuppy, it is Dwight Henry, as her father, Wink, who caught my eye. His performance has a lived-in quality, and it’s no surprise; as the proprietor of a bakery in the Seventh Ward in New Orleans, he understands this material in a way that few do.

Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry

In an act of defiance, Wink blows a hole in the levy, causing the waters to recede. This sparks interest from the authorities, and soon the resident of the Bathtub are living in a city shelter. There, young Hushpuppy, she of the wild hair and indomitable spirit, is shoved into a pink dress with a tight bun on her head. Wink is bed-ridden, being treated for a disease he has been carrying for far too long.

But it’s the final third of the film shows a true revolutionary spirit: Hushpuppy and her father flee the care of the shelter to return to their homes. The allegiance of the residents of the Bathtub to their homes is a stark contrast to how the poor are typically depicted in film, in which they will do anything to escape their surroundings. Hushpuppy and her family live by different rules. They lack food, adequate shelter, and, of course, money – their homes and their sense of community are all they have. In this way, “Beasts of a Southern Wild’ sounds a note of pride by an entire class of people who have been marginalized by our political system.

Much of the credit must go to director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin, a 27-year-old first-time director. This movie is full of the kind of bold choices only a young director could make, but Zeitlin never takes a wrong step. Using local actors (and non-actors) for every role gives the film an unmistakable authenticity. He also introduces a touch of magic realism, in just the right dosage, to give us a small bit of relief from the Bathtub. And, most importantly, he never condescends to his subjects. “Beasts of a Southern Wild” is a unique vision that makes audiences sit up and take notice. I hope more people get a chance to see it. Our world will be a bit better if they do.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

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