[Marxism] Armond White dismantles "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Louis Proyect 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 
political economy.)
Quvenzhané Wallis.

Quvenzhané Wallis.

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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