By Nick Shapiro
Leaning against a tent pole in Lowndes County Alabama this past September, I listened to civil rights activists recount the bloody history of voter suppression that haunted the land where we stood. In the ’60s, black sharecroppers who registered to vote were evicted. They banded together in a tent city for years, on a site just behind the stage. The Black Panther was first their symbol, before its exportation to Oakland, where conventional histories of the Black Panther Party begin. Down the sleepy highway that hummed in the distance, John Lewis, now my congressman, headed a march that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act.
Amidst all the brutal tales of the evening, one passing but insidious anecdote burrowed into my spine. One activist in her late 60s related a brush with celebrity. At the height of their enfranchisement organizing she was asked to give a tour of the area to a group of supportive northern folk singers, including Joni Mitchell. It was August, and as their van passed cotton field after cotton field at the top of the season the visitors marveled at the crop’s near celestial beauty. “It’s like fallen clouds,” they gawked. All the activist saw when she looked out towards the horizon was the earthly and backbreaking work that sharecroppers would be doing until winter. Disgusted, she sent the van back to the airport.
How can landscapes of dispossession be read with an eye for beauty, an optimistic eye that casts light on fortitude and triumph, without romanticizing dispossession?
As I stood there listening to this half-century old story, I was tweezed by a sentimental déjà vu—one that crystallized my unease with Beasts of the Southern Wild, the surreal indie movie hit of the summer, set along the flood-prone Louisiana coast. The film garnered a handful of academy award nominations, including best picture, best actress, and best directing. And yet, amidst all the accolades, there is a troubling paradox at the film’s core: how can landscapes of dispossession—be they Louisiana floodplains or Alabama cotton fields—be read with an eye for beauty, an optimistic eye that casts light on fortitude and triumph, without romanticizing dispossession? The answer may simply be to reckon with the brutal histories behind the alluring aesthetics that cohabit sites of deprivation, but that is a feat that Beasts does not accomplish.
A New Yorker article joked that the title of Beasts of the Southern Wild sounds “mildly ethnographic,” like an anthropologist describing a strange culture in a remote land. This passing quip pulls an unexpected weight. The film is a wildly accurate ethnographic portrait—not of the communities portrayed in the film, but rather of the confused reveries of well-meaning transplants to post-Katrina New Orleans. The fantasized menagerie of Deep South Louisiana culture it depicts reveals the southern dreamscapes of its northern filmmaker.
In Beasts of the Southern Wild Zeitlin again draws upon the charge of southern black struggles while anesthetizing the racial politics from which that charge derives.
In Beasts, a six-year-old heroine, powerfully played by Quvenzhané Wallis, learns the rough-and-tumble means of survival from her ailing father: catching catfish with her bare hands, cooking with something akin to a flamethrower. A storm assaults their hyperbolically eclectic bayou settlement and the townspeople run around a lot.
Director Benh Zeitlin’s previous film, Glory at Sea, is available on Youtube. I first saw it a couple years ago when I was living in New Orleans. I had to cut it off half way through. The facile post-racial dynamics of the short film, shot largely in New Orleans East, on the site of a former all-black beach, made me slap my laptop shut. The film’s dreamscape, in which disaster and poverty have wiped clean all the fissures that keep society divided, was nearly overwhelming on its own. But rendering it on land so charged by a history of segregation, and not far from the most heinous post-Katrina police violence, bore too much contradiction—seemingly unconscious and unintentional—for me to watch.
What was impressive, however, were Zeitlin’s surreal, haunting aesthetics and the film’s use of a hodgepodge of weathered props. Glory depicts a racially integrated disaster-ravaged community without commodities, only the rubble with which they creatively make due. Out of the ruins the townspeople fashion a rusted-out station wagon, cast iron bathtub, and ratty mattress flotilla. The majority of the film is spent building this ragtag fleet and setting it adrift on lake Pontchartrain to revisit the watery graves of those lost to a storm much like Hurricane Katrina. The flotsam used to keep the townspeople afloat and artfully arranged at a partially submerged memorial site, offered more hope than either the characters or the plot.
In Beasts of the Southern Wild Zeitlin again draws upon the charge of southern black struggles while anesthetizing the racial politics from which that charge derives. The film depicts the two black protagonists living in dilapidated but harmonic relations with whites and, presumably, Native Americans. This time the setting is a town beyond the brink, on the other side of the levee. Erasure of the perception of race or class is seemingly predicated not on disaster, as in Glory, but rather on societal abandonment. In this setup, Beasts reaps the sympathetic pull of black main characters who have endured the exploitive southern race relations of the past but does so within a guilt-free present, one that is marked as a racial utopia.
In Beasts, Zeitlin nails an almost identical aesthetic to that of Glory. Mobile homes on stilts, boats made of truckbeds, and dirt caked onto actors, props, and sets alike. But what exactly is the look that these films so skillfully craft? It is a style more than just Cajun clutter, the debris of rural poverty, or the accumulations of hoarders. It’s a neo-romantic aesthetic that values decrepitude, a look that’s become very recognizable in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.
Well before I relocated there in 2010, post-flood New Orleans was already being inundated with young, typically white, often college-educated folks along the bohemian spectrum of the left—clustering along St. Claude Avenue in the 9th and 7th wards. Since the storm, the city has experienced a 7 percent drop in its black population and an increase in median household income, as the poorest black residents never returned and young educated whites have streamed in.
Many of these newcomers saw hope in the neglect of New Orleans. “New Orleans wasn’t on the same grid of power as Boston, where I was living. In the decay there was just such possibility,” an acquaintance explained to me at a backyard cookout. After a contemplative pause, he added, “The larger abandoned spaces were like cathedrals to me.” To many, the dilapidated city exerted an aesthetic, ideological, and spiritual pull. An allure and energy inherent to New Orleans, yet vastly amplified by its flooding.
I know that feeling all to well. Too arrogant to ask my family for money while conducting my underfunded PhD research, I renovated a 7×9-foot shack in a mid-city backyard with materials salvaged from flood-damaged homes and schools. I was proud of my tiny home, repurposed from wreckage. It was just enough. A simple, stripped-down existence. And of course, in some way, it was a short-term means of stepping outside of my own class privilege. I’m roughing it!
If the conservative dream, a flood cleaning up a city, is perniciously ideological, then the liberal fetishizing of ruin and decay is the gritty side of the same coin.
A friend, working on Beasts at the time, even mentioned that my little ‘shackteau’ (as my landlord called it) reminded him of a set in the film dubbed “shacko in the backo.” Zeitlin himself surely felt the allure of ‘possibility’ surrounding a city in ruins. He told The Atlantic that an “ultimate freedom that exists” in Bathtub, the fictionalized bayou town in which Beasts takes place, as a result of its abandonment.
For northern and northern-educated transplants, and even urban southerners like me, the ruins of New Orleans, like the ramshackle town in Beasts, represented the hope of escaping capitalism’s constrains; of finding self-sufficiency, authenticity, and partaking in the larger hipness of nostalgia. These dreams and fantasies, read into the landscape of New Orleans by the scores of new inhabitants, are cinematically exaggerated in Beasts. And they are not without their own politics.
That the film is couched as a fantasy, or takes the viewpoint of a child, is no alibi. As bell hooks notes, “For many folks who see this film it is the mythic focus that enchants. And yet it is precisely this mythic focus that deflects attention away from egregious sub-textual narratives present in the film.” Pushing hooks’ observation one step further, it is precisely the grimy, waterlogged, and idiosyncratic means of achieving this fantasy that harbors the film’s major contradiction.
The conservative reformers who descended upon New Orleans after the mass destruction of 2005 also saw opportunity in the rubble. As Naomi Klein outlines in The Shock Doctrine, city planners and policy makers viewed the largely destroyed city as a blank slate upon which to realize their plans to privatize public education, public housing, and health care. New Orleans represented a ‘clean break’ from obstructive history, an open invitation to remake a major American city according to free market ideals. These sanitized aesthetics, blank slates and clean breaks, are antithetical to the utility and beauty of the discarded and neglected in Beasts.
But if the conservative dream, a flood cleaning up a city, is perniciously ideological, then the liberal fetishizing of ruin and decay, what some call punk gentrification, is the gritty side of the same coin. Both see competing “possibilities” in other people’s wreckage. Neither is particularly discerning of what the dreams of the flooded residents look like.
Beasts revels in the rich texture of discarded objects and people—the thick patina of accumulated history. It is this material history that forms the aesthetic signature of both Glory and Beasts, yet the charged and specific neglect that produced the look of the films’ objects—active dispossession and abandonment—is effaced. The countervailing dreamscapes of New Orleans converge in Zeitlin’s films, plopping picturesque dereliction atop a sanitized history. The film is a bipartisan fantasy, an intoxicating brew served upon a ‘blank slate.’ It is an attempt at a liberal restorative reading of Louisiana with an unwittingly neo-conservative conceit, one in which social disasters are seen as opportunities to erase pesky history.
Of course, harmonic integration remains a dream for many, if not most, in the south. But to claim, even fantastically, that neglect or disaster can free society of historical discrimination is the real beast of Beasts. It is a fantasy more mythical than the elephant-sized swine imagined by the film’s young heroine. And yet, that fantasy undergirds conservative responses to contemporary racial inequality and large-scale disaster. The drastically different social dynamics of racially charged post-Katrina New Orleans (in Glory) and the lands of French speaking Indian communities that make up much of the scenery in Beasts are depicted identically in the cleansed landscape of Zeitlin’s films. The thick grit of ahistorical abandonment in both films becomes a form of whitewashing. Whitewashing with dirt, a pretext that makes the process more palatable.
Such color-blindness makes America’s ongoing history of adoration for poor black creativity or imagination—borne out of systemic suffering, without interest in stopping said suffering—loom even larger. The success of this and related depictions of the feral south lean on fantastical and political visions of neglect or destruction, but also something more. The teeming life and plucky yet fragile existence of the southern wetlands seems to bear particular cultural salience during these economically shaky times. The number of gator-themed reality television shows may even outnumber those featuring the overweight, or the children of the obscenely rich.
Beasts is indeed a perfect storm.
Nick Shapiro is a medical anthropologist and aspiring handyman. He is currently finishing up his PhD at the University of Oxford.