[Marxism] Armond White dismantles "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 1 19:43:12 MST 2013
How Do You Pronounce Quvenzhané?
by Armond White on Jan 30, 2013 • 9:00 am
Celebrated Indie film confuses pandering with empathy
Beasts of the Southern Wild.
In answer to the above question, “pickaninny” would be a viable option.
Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, from the film Beasts of the Southern
Wild, has become the youngest person ever nominated for a lead-actor
Academy Award but not because her untrained performance is extraordinary
acting; it’s more like what exasperated parents refer to as “showing
off.” Black actresses who train for their craft never get the
recognition that the Oscars easily grant to black non-professionals who
fulfill racist stereotypes.
Quvenzhané’s name may be hard to pronounce (she must have been named
after the ’90s R&B group Zhané), but her role as Hushpuppy embodies the
familiar, patronizing white liberal attitude toward needy, impoverished,
uneducated black people—the condescension that peaked when Hurricane
Katrina unleashed floodgates of bourgeois pity. That’s the motivation
behind director Benh Zeitlin adapting a Katrina-inspired stage play into
a magical-realist art film based on the antics of a hyperactive black
child. Quvenzhané milks audience sympathy by playing the lowly creature
of Southern plantation disdain (black, juvenile, irrepressible) that
used to be called a pickaninny.
Hushpuppy is a spunky reddish-complexioned tomboy who wears a wild,
class-specific Afro none of the Obama First Family females would dare.
Her spunkiness adapts mainstream Hollywood’s proven Shirley Temple
effect to the idea of the Noble Savage. That apparently timeless notion,
conferring virtuous purity to the unsophisticated Other, takes on new
impetus in Beasts. Pandering has become the new empathy. President Obama
even recommended Beasts to Oprah Winfrey (whose endorsement of Precious
represented her own liberal-baiting safari). And film critics joined the
same safari when touting Beasts as “something never seen
before”—conveniently forgetting that Zeitlin’s use of a child’s poetic
voice-over narration and lyrical rural scenery were devices better
employed in David Gordon Green’s 2000 film George Washington.
I was on the jury at the Newport Film Festival with Tim Daly and Stephen
Lang and we unanimously agreed that the actors in George Washington and
the film itself should receive the festival’s top prizes. Green’s cast
of black and white Southern teen actors articulated some authentic,
profoundly moving, verging-on-adulthood personal observations. George
Washington’s subtle examination of America’s social legacy (including
Green’s own adolescent sensibility) recalled Robert Flaherty’s great
Louisiana Story. Green avoided Beasts’ class condescension that depicts
the Southern poor as slatternly, exotic freaks. Hushpuppy is smarter
than any of the financially and mentally broke-ass adults around her in
the bayou area she calls “The Bathtub.” (That’s “The Ghetto” to Northern
elites who are charmed by such quaint exaggeration of the South’s
A lot of effort goes into making a movie as sloppy-looking as Beasts.
Zeitlin’s pity party fantasia emulates the rough, intensely colored
style of Outsider art yet using very deliberate, cultivated means.
Hushpuppy’s bric-a-brac hovel presents an almost surrealist version of
hoarding; the insufferable moment where she cooks cat food for dinner
and sets fire to her fleapit anticipates her climactic fantasy that the
“fabric of the world is coming loose.” Imagining the Bayou in peril, she
sees marching mastodons, turning Zeitlin’s self-conscious prehistorical
chaos into a kiddie survivalist’s apocalyptic fairy tale.
It’s livelier than Pedro Costa’s condescending view of European blacks,
but that’s far from a recommendation. As an American art movie, Beasts
belongs to that category of calling-card films made by whites breaking
into Hollywood via the indie leagues. Black subjects are always good for
publicity, a tradition going back to John Cassavetes’ 1960 Shadows (a
film still more brave and honest than most) and on to Fresh, Monsters
Ball, Half Nelson, etc. Calling-card directors never go back to black
subject-matter once they make it in the industry. (Despite the fact that
Beasts is supposedly an “indie” film, it benefits from a year-long,
multi-million dollar promotional campaign by its distributor Fox
Beasts represents a different incentive than Kendrick Lamar’s conceit of
using the subtitle “A Short Film” on his debut album Good Kid, M.A.A.D.
City. Lamar’s song cycle conveys a panoply of contemporary black
American experiences in musical sketches that music critics mistakenly
call “cinematic.” Lamar’s album is vivid because it’s also insightful.
Beasts lacks insight and settles for being gaudy and lurid. Lamar’s
conflicted characters and caring adult females contrast to Hushpuppy’s
encountering maternal affection only at the Elysian Fields brothel. Ah,
the motherly black whore! Beasts of the Southern Wild also revives the
only racist cliché older than the pickaninny. Maybe the Oscars will
nominate Quvenzhané for that role when she gets older.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair
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