thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Mythologizing Katrina in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

In environment, Film on August 3, 2012 at 10:18 am

Sarah T.

Sometimes loss feels like a stampede of aurochs storming at your back. That’s how it looks, too, in Benh Zeitlein’s lyrical Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Having survived a cataclysmic storm and a forced evacuation, the film’s six-year-old protagonist Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is coming home to her Gulf Coast town, the Bathtub. Hushpuppy’s an innocent, but she knows what she’s coming back to: a sick father and a ravaged town. So when she wheels around to face the auroch, she’s not scared. There’s nothing it could do to hurt her. “I’ve gotta take care of mine,” she instructs the animal. Until she’s through, the apocalypse–whether it comes in the form of extinct beasts or the melting ice caps she also envisions–is going to have to wait.

Facing down the beast

That apocalypse is closely linked to Hurricane Katrina and the inequalities its devastating aftermath exposed. The Bathtub takes the brunt of the storm, thanks to a levee that divides the rural town from a city where a remote factory looms. Hushpuppy and her father Wink (Dwight Henry) ride out the battering rain and wind in their patched-together home, then spend the next few days in a boat, pulling neighbors from their rooftops. Official rescuers are nowhere to be seen. When the authorities finally do show up, it’s to force the citizens of the Bathtub into a sterile evacuation center that appears galaxies apart from their lush, shambling hometown.

The music and imagery in Beasts of the Southern Wild push Katrina into the realm of myth. A sweeping score plays over scenes of the town’s last festival before the storm, radiant with sparklers. When Wink and his friends decide to bomb the levee to save the Bathtub, they plant the explosives in an alligator’s corpse. An island brothel is transformed into an offering of temporary mothers. They slow dance with Hushpuppy and other young girls while “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” plays on loop.

But though the film often looks fantastical, it avoids idealizing the Bathtub. Wink is a volatile caretaker, alternately neglectful, angry, and protective. Many of the other adults in town seem to be alcoholics, with the exception of a soothing medicine woman. These problems are implicitly linked with the characters’ poverty, visible in their tumble-down homes. However, the adults are also resourceful, spirited, and determined to survive by staying together. Beasts encourages the audience to empathize with Hushpuppy and her neighbors, but it doesn’t romanticize them or the hardships they’ve endured–a problem common to well-intentioned representations of Katrina’s survivors.

The politics of representation lie at the heart of Beasts, particularly for Hushpuppy. Because she’s aware of the instability and impermanence of her world, she frames her life in terms of its historical and anthropological importance. “I’m recording my story for the scientists of the future,” she announces, drawing a picture of herself and her father on the side of a cardboard box. Later, she says, “Millions of years from now when kids go to school, they’ll know that once there was a girl called Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” Hushpuppy knows that a day will come when the Bathtub, which lies below sea level, won’t be around any longer. She’s seen firsthand how easily her community can be ignored or displaced. And she’s experienced loss that’s less preventable, though no less tragic. So she balances her desire to be remembered with an awareness of a large and unknowable world beyond the Bathtub. “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me flying around in invisible pieces,” she says. “I see that I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it right.”

Everybody’s a little piece of a big universe, of course. But some people live as if they’re much bigger, all while trying to make the rest of the world small enough to control or dismiss. Hushpuppy’s destiny is largely influenced by such types: the brute officials who barrel into her home, the distant doctors and snappish workers at the evacuation center, the government that approved a levee that appears designed to protect the privileged at the expense of the poor.

That’s why mythologizing Hushpuppy’s story is a political move. Aurochs, ice caps, and magical islands give her narrative the shape of a hero’s journey. She gets the legendary scope and largeness she hungers for–though not, despite the soaring soundtrack and her own resolute optimism, the happy ending she deserves.

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  1. Nice. I am looking forward to watching this.

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