Earlier this week, The New Republic published a scathing and moralistic piece by Thomas Hackett about the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild. While he begrudgingly praises the film’s “excitement for the surprising places artful imagery and editing can take us,” he ends up making the rather inflammatory claim that the film is “patronizing and borderline racist, that it sentimentalizes poverty and glosses over neglect, and that it skirts tough questions by resorting to a half-baked and naïve fable.”
Calling a film racist is no small thing. It’s also noteworthy that the film he cites in his footnotes as an example of how to properly address poverty, Frozen River, conveniently leaves out the black experience altogether, indicating that he does not see the problems as in any way interrelated. But Hackett’s real problem is that the film “skims the surface of serious matters without asking us to actually grapple with their complexities.” He is correct that the film does not offer a solution to the issue of poverty, but it doesn’t want to. In only looking for the film he wants to see, he misses how much respect Beasts has for the community it depicts – and how that makes it a revolutionary film.
When Hollywood makes a film addressing poverty in the black community, it almost always tells the same story: a poor protagonist struggles against all odds to lift themselves out of poverty. Often the protagonist is black, in movies like Trading Places, Precious, and The Pursuit of Happyness, but white poverty is depicted similarly in Midnight Cowboy, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and even The Hunger Games. Studios like these movies because they are feel-good stories that can also claim a social conscience, but they often convey a conservative, individualistic solution to the systemic societal deficiencies that create conditions of poverty. Ultimately, they impress upon viewers a lift-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps message and ignore the underlying problems.
This is why I appreciated Beasts so much. To its enduring credit, the film refuses to offer that kind of individualistic solution. Instead of depicting Hushpuppy’s ultimate happiness as a middle-class home in suburban America, the film’s third act finds us rooting for her and her father to escape from the state-run agency who has removed them from their home, tied her wild hair up with bows, and left her father to die in a hospital room. Their goal is to get him home so that he can die where he lived. Other critics have suggested that the film is a detached fantasy for middle-class folks; Stephen Whitty at the Newark Star-Ledger wrote that “it’s a pleasant fantasy to believe that people who sleep in the dirt and gut their own dinners are possessed of a spiritual richness that you’ve always felt deep down you’re somehow lacking.” But the film doesn’t suggest Hushpuppy’s life is somehow richer than our own, only that it has value on its own terms.
As a short digression, allow me to embarrass myself: I grew up in the Northeast, and, since both my parents were social workers, we ended up talking a lot about poverty and the homeless. Upon seeing a homeless woman bundled up in a doorway on one particularly cold winter’s day, I asked my mother why the homeless in our city didn’t just pack up and move somewhere warmer. Why don’t they go to Miami or San Diego where they would not have to worry about cold temperatures? She gave me two answers: the first was that they had little access to transportation, a fact that my young mind had not considered. But her second answer – and this was the one that stuck with me – was that it’s not so easy for them to cut ties to their community. They don’t have a house, but they do have a home. They have neighbors. They have daily routines, and they value them as much as we value ours. The lesson that I took from that conversation with my mother was that, while we do have an urgent moral responsibility to address and end poverty in America, we must never ignore the costs that come from removing a person from their community, no matter how uninhabitable it may seem from the outside.
In this way, we could argue that Beasts is a film about gentrification. It trumpets a note of gratitude for the strong culture that is often forged through economic hardship. Hackett see this as patronizing and would seem to prefer a film that simply depicts poverty as hell on earth. But that’s just not the whole truth. To suggest that removing a person from poverty solves all of their problems seems a rather naïve and – dare I say – patronizing perspective. Beasts never intended to offer a solution to the complex issue of poverty; it simply and gracefully shows us a side of it we don’t usually get to see.