THE NEWLY RELEASED movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, by first-time Director Benh Zeitlin, has received critical praise and garnered prestigious awards on the film festival circuit, winning prizes at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. The attention is understandable; the film is beautifully shot — the characters and story are compelling. Zeitlin has charmed film fans and critics with his do-it-yourself ethos and his warm embrace of the Louisiana Bayou community where they shot the film.
It might seem churlish to critique this engaging film on political grounds. But since it takes place within a poor and isolated community called the Bathtub on the eve of a Katrina-like storm, it is impossible not to read it politically.
The central character in the movie is a young girl called Hushpuppy. Hushpuppy is a survivor in the Bathtub’s squalid world of alcoholism, filth and outright child-abuse. The adult residents of the Bathtub, including her father, engage in spontaneous celebrations, drink incessantly and grab fish with their bare hands from the Bayou waters. They are, according to a number of prominent film critics, “free.“
Writing in The New Yorker, David Denby concluded that the residents of the Bathtub “just want to enjoy, in liberty, their own special existence, which for them provides satisfactions as complete as any they know of.“ The reviewer from the New Orleans based Times-Picayune newspaper (the film was shot just outside of New Orleans) asserts that the film portrays a band of “survivors who are willing to fight all day for their right to eat and drink, sing and stumble all night.”
While the film centers on Hushpuppy’s struggle to survive the degradation that surrounds her — primarily through imagination and her incipient art — this “You’ve got to fight for your right to party” ethos is also a central theme. Viewers are asked to interpret a lack of work discipline, schooling, or steady institution building of any kind — the primary building blocks of any civilization — as the height of liberation. “Choice,” even the choice to live in squalor, is raised to the level of a categorical imperative. There is no inkling of the economic and social history of the region that had limited these “choices.” We are left with a libertarian sandbox, with a rights-based life philosophy gone rancid.
The images in the film conjure up a debate about the political potential of the disenfranchised that took place in mid-nineteenth century Europe between Communist Karl Marx and Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. Marx was skeptical of the political and social potential of what he termed the “lumpen-proletariat,” those on the margins of society who lived not unlike the residents of the Bathtub. They were difficult to organize and incapable of adopting a coherent political ideology. They could, Marx believed, raise a lot of hell through spontaneous outbursts of hopeless insurrection, but they could not build a new society to challenge the dominant capitalist one. Bakunin, on the other hand, championed the revolutionary potential of the “uncivilized, the disinherited, the miserable, t...read more