Beasts of the Southern Wild, poverty and preservation


I have been thinking about Beasts of the Southern Wild for two or three weeks, trying to decide how I feel about it.The accents carried flashes from my childhood in Louisiana, something was vaguely familiar in the fierce independence of the characters. But, like foggy childhood memories, the images in Beasts is full of non-sequiturs and child-like wondering. I have more questions than answers about the community it portrays and the perspective on poverty it presents.

Telling the story from 6-year-old Hushpuppy’s point of view and using the aurochs created a surreal fantasy in a brutally realistic setting. The aurochs are both a metaphor for the extinction of Hushpuppy’s community, the storm, her father’s illness and her fight for survival and yet they appear as real, threatening beasts pounding toward Hushpuppy’s fragile home.

The residents of “The Bathtub” are grappling with the destruction of their community after a Katrina-level storm. Their homes are destroyed. The salt water is eating up the vegetation. Certainly there are needs in this community that they can’t meet for themselves but help seems to come with a caveat that their lifestyles change and their community disband; and they are having none of it. So they hide from authorities, keep to themselves, and help one another. They steal when necessary. They attempt to blow up the levee that separates them from fresh water. Hushpuppy’s father battles cancer and alcohol. And the aurochs gallop toward them.

The teacher, Miss Bathsheba, tells the children about climate change and the extinction of the aurochs due to the melting of the polar ice caps. She has an auroch tattoo on her ankle. In her own rapidly changing environment Hushpuppy identifies with the plight of the beast and says that “the scientists in the future, they’re gonna find it all, and they’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub.” Her final meeting with the auroch is a recognition that neither creature can recover the environments that are lost to them but neither will they accept “civilization” on the terms in which it is offered.

This community lacks the modern conveniences that most who would be classified “impoverished” in the U.S. enjoy. Alcoholism, family violence, and hunger are the norm. There is almost a feral atmosphere in this devastated landscape and the human “beasts” who inhabit it. In Hushpuppy’s running commentary on her place in the universe she seems to identify herself more as a creature of the natural world than a citizen of the “civilized” world. She accepts her father’s death saying “Everybody loses the thing that made them. That’s even how it is in nature. The brave men stay and watch it happen.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild addresses the complexity of poverty and raises questions about how “helping” the poor can look from their perspective. For these impoverished people home matters a lot, but for them home is not a comfortable building but the land and the tribe. Moving them is like melting the ice caps from underneath the aurochs. I wonder if sometimes food and clothes and shelter comes with too many strings attached. Would I be willing to surrender the dignity of freedom and the power of self-determination if I lived in the Bathtub? Would I ask that of them if I were one of the decision-makers?

I want to take Hushpuppy into my arms and tell her that the One who made her is always with her, that the Creator is more than pieces of the universe flying around and that she is more to Him than an insignificant nearly-extinct beast. I want to tell her she is more than that to me. I know it’s a movie, but out there, living in a wild place or a dump or a shanty or even a run-down house or apartment in America or Russia or Mexico or Africa or Central America or anywhere else in the world there is a real Hushpuppy out there wondering.

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