There is only one Oscar controversy that matters in our house. Not the torture of Zero Dark Thirty or the reality check of Argo. It's not the lip-sync free Les Mis or the missing best director nod for Affleck.
It's the racism of "Beasts of the Southern Wild." In this house we have been mystified by the missing controversy over the celebration of poverty and child abuse. Liberal white guilt has blinded many critics. Finally today we found an article with which we whole-heartedly agree. It is by Thomas Hackett in The New Republic, "The Racism of Beast of the Southern Wild"
Every couple of years a movie comes along that exposes the sorry state of contemporary film criticism. I’m not talking about the Jackass franchise or anything starring Danny McBride. I mean the sort of sentimental claptrap that sends otherwise sensible people into raptures of moral self-satisfaction. Dances with Wolves or Crash, for example, both of which rode white liberal guilt like a hobbyhorse all the way to the Oscars. Or, most recently: Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film that deploys a casual racism, vilifies public health workers, and romanticizes poverty.Our mutual friend who has incredible bona-fides when it comes to film criticism has helped me to see that most film critics are missing the Peter Pan point of the film. These are people that refuse to grow up and only Hushpuppy has any hope of moving on a living with reality. It is clear though, from Hackett's article that some well respected critics are buying into a different reality for the Bathtub. The inhabitants are not just refusing to climb out, they shouldn't bother.
Critics across the board have gushed. “Let’s all agree: This movie is a blast of sheer, improbable joy,” writes Scott. Drinking their days away, none of them working, yet supposedly bound by a principled ethic of libertarian solidarity, the grownup residents of The Bathtub are “wise, unpretentious and self-reliant,” Scott adds. To The New Yorker’s David Denby, these wastrels are “determined to hold on to their miserable piece of earth, which, for them—and for us, as art—is as close to paradise as anyone could imagine.” 2 (By these lights, so was Jonestown.) Newsday’s Rafer Guzman praises Wink’s “excellent parenting skills.” 3It's a dangerous point of view and reminds me of my first trip to see South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. The irony of Sadam Hussein as the gay lover of Satan was hysterical. I was laughing, until I realize that the target audience of 18-25 year old males surrounding me was not laughing with me. As a gay man, they were laughing at me. I realized that this film was being experienced on a completely different level by way too many viewers. It was not challenging stereotypes, it was reinforcing them. Hackett acknowledges the film's value as cinema but challenges it's social implications.
In short, Beasts of the Southern Wild comes to us as one of those movies “the industry can be proud of,” which the great bullshit detector Pauline Kael called out in her famous 1969 essay “Trash, Art and the Movies”—a film we feel honored to acclaim. It skims the surface of serious matters without asking us to actually grapple with their complexities: We can feel guilty, virtuous, and indifferent all at once.4
Beasts does this primarily by turning poverty into a kind of sentimental, specious poetry. Sentimentality has its uses, of course, not the least of which is to mask unpleasant realities with comforting hooey. Basically, it’s a form of moral and intellectual pornography, an easy way of getting off that, in the case of Beasts, begins and ends in patronizing attitudes of racial superiority. Just as nineteenth-century readers were endeared to the “funny little specimen” of Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, audiences and reviewers have also taken complete leave of their critical faculties over Beast’s Hushpuppy with her big eyes, shock of Don King hair, precious voice-over narration, and cutesy-pie name. Scott calls the girl an “American original”; in fact, though, Hushpuppy is just yet another iteration in a long and cherished line of pickaninnies. Beautifully played by Quvenzhané Wallis (six years old at the time of the shooting), the headstrong and scrappy Hushpuppy is just about the most adorable thing to come along since that kid in Webster. Then again, the pickaninny is always cute, always amusing, like a mischievous pet in a YouTube video. That’s her raison d’être.