Friday, July 13, 2012

Man or Beast?: Revisiting the White Male Gaze

"I'm the man!" the little girl screamed at her father in a climatic scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild, a new film by Behn Zeitlin.  My dear friend Holly and I checked it out tonight in downtown SF. It's a film I've been wanting to check out for a while. And, it did not entirely disappoint. In fact, it did something else.

Beasts made me sick, literally. This has happened to me once before, because of the way the film is shot and our proximity to the front of the crowded theater, I became nauseous and had to run to the bathroom. I'll spare you the details because it wasn't pretty, but it was a nice break from the dizziness. Not just from the camera work, but also the storyline and overall flow of the film. I don't want to imply that it wasn't good. There were great things about it. For instance, Quvenzhane Wallis, the young woman who plays Hushpuppy, is breathtaking. In a word. Her voice, stories, screams, and strength infect every inch of this film, which was the the intent, as narrators often do. But, Wallis goes beyond this. You feel everything--every word she utters, every adventure she embarks upon, and her extreme isolation, relaying that she can count the times she's been held in her short life on two fingers.  If I could stomach it, I would watch this film over and over again just to see her. She is devastating. I don't care if she never acts in another movie again, this was it. The same is true of Dwight Henry, who plays her father. He's stunning.

So what was it, aside from the camera angles, that made me sick? Nothing, really. It just felt uneven, rushed, and, as its touted, fantastical. This film is loosely based on Lucy Alibar's play, Juicy and Delicious, which I know little about, but it also--given it's story location in the Southern Delta and Zeitlin's love for New Orleans--is reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. Because of the similarities, the fantasy/magical element of the end of the world feels off to me. I don't know that Katrina is far enough "behind us" to make this kind of movie--one that touches upon, but doesn't really delve into the "truth." I won't give away spoilers, but I think it's difficult to make a fantasy movie about a natural (and social/cultural) disaster that most of us haven't seen the full scale of. Many of us have put out of our mind the flood victims, mostly Black, who were forced to leave their home city and still haven't returned, lost their homes to flood damage and "lost paperwork," and lost their lives due to a slow moving federal response. Remember Kanye's (he's mentioned way too much on this blog) George Bush doesn't care about Black people comment? That was true.

But, that's not really the case here, or at least that's not what troubles me about the movie. The Black folks, though 'magical' at times, are the most interesting characters. It's the white people in the film that tweaked me a bit. They are effectively "poor white trash." The lines the white characters are given and their overall buffoonery--one guy is so drunk/disheveled that he opens the door of his house, doesn't realize there are no steps and walks right into the water. It's supposed to be a kind of funny, sweet and sympathetic scene, I think. But then we get inside his "house," and his large, female counterpart (wife?) is passed out under the table, wakes up, and says something about "trying to touch my titties." Outside of Hushpuppy--can't stand these kinds of nicknames for little Black girls and there is no context as to why this is her name, more of the fantasy--all of the characters feel one dimensional. I think her character may have been written one-dimensionally, but her acting transcends it. In any case, there's something about her magical quality, her strength that feels half written and insincere against a backdrop of bumbling, incompetent, but kind of lovable, poor white people.The distancing that had to/has to happen in order to portray those characters in that way demonstrates a false alignment with our heroine. And it's an alignment, a solidarity that's necessary to make this movie believable.

Benh Zeitlin is a white male filmmaker--as are most that gain attention--and I don't fault him for that. He (and Alibar) have created one of the most beautiful Black characters to come along in a while. However, the portrayal of white people in the film represents a distancing between his whiteness and theirs that allows his privilege, his gaze to remain invisible. He is not a part of them.  It's not like the white people are racist in the film, which we collectively assume to be true when we view white + Southern, they're just poor. And poverty, as a state, is something that it looks like he knows little about. Or he has constructed it in some way that he hopes filmgoers will go along with. But, it's a representation that strips them of their humanity. And how is stripping the white people of their humanity ok when you're trying to demonstrate the super humanity of a Black girl whose mother deserted her and her father (which felt very Disney/Pixar, I must say and whose truncated body was sexualized in ways that didn't go outside of the gaze whatsoever)? What does it say when the only other white people in the film are officials who force their way into people's homes, try to break up families, and hold down the violent Black male body? In the end, Hushpuppy's strength comes with much sacrifice, which is a story that gets told over and over again about Black women.  But she's ok, she'll be ok. Like all the others. That's troubling to me in this current moment of openly celebrating the white male gaze.

Or, really, the white male.

If you follow this blog, you know that I watch a good chunk of TV. And I'm currently gearing up for Sunday night's premiere of Breaking Bad (unless my DirectTV scrambles AMC, which will make me go all Walter White on folks). I also watch and am a fan of Mad Men. Both of these shows are in total celebration of all things white, male, and heterosexual.

So, what's the problem? 1) All of the people that are killed or evil on Breaking Bad are people of color, mostly Mexican with one or two other Latinos thrown in for good measure. Walter White gets away with murder (literally) every season. He's ruthless and, as the story goes, will do whatever it takes and whatever white guys are supposed to do, to protect his family. 2) Don Draper on Mad Men doesn't trust women whatsoever, makes angels out of some and "whores" out of others as do all of the male characters on the show. This was explicitly the case this season when Joan and Peggy played both roles literally and figuratively by "betraying" his idea of them. I'd say this was all nostalgia or more fantasy, if it wasn't coupled with Daniel Tosh's recent "rape jokes," George Zimmerman's second release from jail, and the "beast or man" comments made about Serena Williams and Brittney Griner this week. A celebration. An all out arrogance.

While Beasts doesn't exactly celebrate, it doesn't feel in solidarity either. It feels defeatist. That's the uneasy feeling it left me with. But there are scenes from the movie that will stay with me for a long time. Unfortunately, some of the scenes are the disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised.

11 comments:

kathy c said...

Thank you. Just saw this tonight and came home to search for folks as disturbed/ambivalent as I feel about it. A fine line between celebration of resilience/fantasy and aestheticization of misery?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. It was very helpful to me tonight after seeing the film and searching for ways to think about mixed feelings of appreciation along with deep misgivings.

s. mandisa moore said...

Thank you-I was disturbed by the film for very similar reasons. And because, as a 6th generation New Orleanian, the film felt anti-South. It felt like another "anti-racist" carpetbagger so steeped in white supremacy that the only way to show the humanity of a black girl from the Deep South is to rely on classed, anti-South stereotypes of the poor white people around her.

How about a portrayal of southern whites as people struggling across race to form class-based struggles for justice? That actually happens alot down here-despite what you read and hear. That complexity of the white characters, and her father, would have just added to the amazingness that was her performance and her character.

queerblackfeminist said...

Mandisa, Thanks for your comment. I was looking for/expecting the same thing in terms of class based solidarity across racial lines. That's so central to the "story" of the South. peace.

Imani Keith Henry said...

should i see the movie dr. dre? sending love

queerblackfeminist said...

Hi Imani! Yeah, I'd go see it. I'd love to hear your critique/take. Wallis' performance is really amazing, it's worth it just to see her.

Hispters Unite said...

Thank you for sharing your insights about Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is clear that you have a lot of issues with the film, but you don't provide better alternatives. So, even if I agreed with your POV, I'm left without the ability to see or read any alternatives that more accurately or effectively navigate through similar themes. Without writing about positive alternatives your critique seems incomplete and simplistic. It is easy to find fault and nitpick, but it is harder to standby and defend what you consider good and suggest it as a better alternative, this also demonstrates that you have an broad understanding of the topic and the films or other media that cover similar themes.

Hispters Unite said...

Thank you for your comments on Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is clear that you have an overall negative view of the film, but may I suggest that in future reviews of film or other media you provide better or more effective alternatives than simply nitpicking through a movie. Even if I agree with your POV I'm left without supporting and enjoying films that are constructed in a better fashion. Please continue writing and providing your perspective.

exDigit said...

Is it only me, or did I read the same comment twice. I will see the film tomorrow, and will post my comment one time. lol

Sandusky Romney said...

The whole Southern mentality is lost to outsiders and city folk, or perhaps someone is just denying others complete happiness in a state of denial that defines a simple, poor, humble, happy southern existence; at least for those of us in the the South still longing for restoration, and probably won't get it because all the smart people left after the Civil War.
Perhaps, in some situations a stupid, simple, hilarious, cartoon existence is not a bad thing. Absence of desire means no suffering; simple people know this, and does indeed resemble a lot of actual circumstances in the south. Race was never an issue in this movie. I assure the the depressed victim who wrote the article I am responding to, that race is only in the mind of the Queer, Black, Feminist's mind and those of other Victimized out-casts who want to ruin people's delight. You can't get over ZIMMERMAN? Do you have a right to be so hateful. It's not nice to poop in someone else's mind. You are bitter, I love you anyway; GET OVER IT. Stop projecting your racism, please. This movie won tons of awards; I'm right; you're wrong. I loved this movie! So boooo-hoooo

queerblackfeminist said...

The only thing I can say to trolls like Sandusky is your discussion of bitter victimhood is clearly the pot calling the kettle...

That is all.