Beasts of the Southern Wild: Class themes in Oscar nominees #1

A darling of the film award season this year, the American fantasy drama film Beasts of the Southern Wild (BOTSW) has been nominated for numerous prestigious awards, including a Best Actress nomination in the 85th Academy Awards for the youngest ever nominee, Quvenzhané Wallis, at nine years old.

BOTSW did not only capture its viewers’ heart with a captivating storyline and thoroughly engaging characters, it also caught our attention with its unique portrayal of the lower class that is simultaneously refreshing and thought-provoking.

From the get-go, the main characters of the film, a six-year-old ‘Hushpuppy’ and her father ‘Wink’ are the very faces of poverty – grimy appearances, shoddy garments, and haphazardly constructed shacks filled with junk. The characters are unconventionally named, and rightly so, because it is indeed unconventional to see a movie with two impoverished protagonists (who actually remain impoverished till the end) gaining widespread acclaim from the mainstream audience. Mainstream American movies have a history of avoiding or grossly demeaning lower class characters, but BOTSW – through its huge success – gave this marginalized group of society a much-needed presence and positive image on the big screen, making it that much more meaningful.

It is apparent that their state of poverty percolates every aspect of the main characters’ lives. Physically, their place of residence is vulnerable to damage, as seen by the fire set by Hushpuppy and the single storm that flooded the entire town overnight. Such unfavorable living conditions also adversely affect Hushpuppy’s upbringing and both characters’ overall wellbeing. Hushpuppy is often left to fend for herself, as in the case of Wink suddenly leaving her on her own for a few days when he had to seek professional medical attention. The general lack of familial support and security – partially due to extreme poverty – produces a child who has a strong desire to be heard and loved, as seen in her attachment to her unknown mother and her longing narrations during the movie.

Emerging from this extremely harsh state of living, however, are the unbelievably strong main characters and their fellow residents of ‘The Bathtub’. Out of the need to survive, Hushpuppy is taught to be strong – a recurrent concept in the movie – through activities such as punching a freshly caught fish to death and breaking a whole crab into half with her bare hands. In Wink’s words, she is taught to “beast it!” The idea that Hushpuppy should embody masculine qualities instead of being a ‘pussy’ is introduced by Wink repeatedly, as Hushpuppy is told to flex her ‘guns’ and proclaim, “I’m the man!” Another avenue through which the characters exhibit strength is when they are up against government authorities, such as the levee bombing incident (for the flood to recede) and the relentless resistance throughout the relocation process. Due to their poverty, being strong is no longer a matter of choice. Instead, it has become a requirement, the only way they can have any control over their lives.

One should definitely be mindful of the significant differences in the setting and circumstances of the poor in a fantasy drama film and the poor in real life societies. Nonetheless, some aspects of the movie are still applicable off the big screen. A major aspect is the unwavering determination of ‘The Bathtub’ residents to live life on their own terms, and the routine rejection from official authorities to do so. Both the construction of the levee and the residents’ “mandatory evacuation” to an emergency shelter “for [their] own good” are forcefully imposed conditions that deny the impoverished residents the right to live their lives as they deem fit.

BOTSW effectively highlights two pressing issues pertaining to the lower class in modern societies. One is that the lower class is not given a chance to be heard, or to speak with their own voice, in many instances. Another issue is that the help given to the lower class may not always be the most adequate or appropriate, as a result of not listening to their needs in the first place. More often than not, the lower class is portrayed as pity-seekers, too unqualified to decide what is best for themselves. However, BOTSW attempts to correct this distorted image by portraying the poor as admirably resilient characters who are, at the same time, as human as you and me. One movie may not effect extensive change in people’s perception of the lower class, but BOTSW’s efforts are definitely commendable as they bring society a little closer to the elimination of classism.

Additionally, BOTSW does a crucial thing: it subtly dispels the common impression that African-Americans dominate the lower class. By having an even mix of Caucasian and African-American lower class characters that are portrayed as being in the same boat, BOTSW successfully overcomes this harmful racial stereotype without explicitly stating it. This tactic also achieves the effect of not making the African-American characters’ race a focal point in the movie, which is a rarity amongst mainstream American movies.

Overall, BOTSW is a movie that deserves praise for its counter-classism characteristics, something that is sorely lacking in the American film industry today. While it is impossible for the main characters in BOTSW to be accurate representations of the entire lower class, the movie does send out some important messages to its audience that urge for a change in societal perspective towards the lower class, as well as call to attention some policies related to the lower class that may require in-depth consideration and adjustment.

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