Celebrated Indie film confuses pandering with empathy
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.)
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 Searchlight.)
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