Pathology porn or movies that seem to mine black people’s dysfunction are often quite popular – “Precious” is a prime example. That every Black person doesn’t have the same background or experiences is lost on people who those kinds of movies do resonate for. At first, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” seems like just another entry in the same ol’ pathology tale. It takes place in a mythical Gulf Coast community called “The Bathtub” which seems to be a stand-in for impoverished, isolated areas of the Mississippi Gulf Coast that were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. In the movie, the storm is used as a metaphor for the grinding poverty that threatens to engulf the community.
What makes “Beasts of the Southern Wild” a different take on poor black people is its lyrical nature and the poetry of the storytelling. Although it’s at times a regular narrative about a 5-year-old girl, Hushpuppy, and her father, Wink, who is struggling with a mysterious illness, it also tells the story in a fable-like fantasy way. Huge prehistoric creatures appear as stand-ins for the colossal odds the people who live in The Bathtub are faced with. The story moves along at a leisurely pace without the usual over-telling that some filmmakers employ when they think their audiences are too dumb to follow along. The movie was written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, a 29-year-old white man from Queens, N.Y. who formed a filmmaking collective in and around New Orleans. That collective, Court 13, and the community around Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana where the movie was shot, eventually helped shape “Beasts.”
A sort of spiritual filmmaking process followed with over 5,000 girls auditioning to play the irrepressible Hushpuppy. Quvenzhané Wallis, now 8, was found in Houma, Louisiana and played the demanding role at age 6. The filmmakers found their Wink at a New Orleans bakery called the Buttermilk Drop, a place they frequented owned by a New Orleans native Dwight Henry. A friendship was formed and the filmmakers were convinced that he was right for the role of Wink, which he turned down repeatedly. He told audiences at the “Beasts” premiere at the American Black Film Festival earlier this year that he’d just expanded the bakery and it was meant to be a legacy he’d leave to his children. He wasn’t about to abandon it to shoot a film.
Ultimately, and fortunately for viewers, the filmmakers won out because Henry is every bit the actor that he is the baker. The movie hangs on the relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink and although neither is a trained actor, they are as phenomenal a duo as any that has ever carried a Hollywood movie. In his own harsh way, Wink, who is dying, is doing his best to help his daughter develop the resilience she’ll need to survive without him. But at her age, all she sees is abandonment. It’s challenging to explain exactly what transpires in the movie’s plot but it’s enough to say that it’s one of the most affecting movies you’ll see this or any year.
As one of the few films told from the perspective of a young black girl ( you may remember Spike Lee’s 1994 “Crooklyn” as the other in recent memory) it’s more authoritative than any politically correct look at both the challenges and resilience of the very poor. While it clearly shows the strength of community despite adverse conditions, it also shows another rarity in movies about black people – the enduring power of a father’s love.