Directed by Benh Zeitlin
Screenplay by Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar
Based on Lucy Alibar’s stage play Juicy and Delicious
Key Performances: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry with Jovan Hathaway & Gina Montana
Summary: A motherless kid named Hushpuppy lives with her father in a primitive coastal Eden on the Gulf of Mexico. Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, is very ill, and when her teacher Miss Bathsheba tells her about extinct monsters called aurochs, Hushpuppy transposes all her fears onto the aurochs. Wink is teaching Hushpuppy how to survive without him when their routines are interrupted by the arrival of a big nameless storm. Wink and Hushpuppy survive, but then they are rounded up with other stragglers and sent to a government shelter where they are forced to bathe, wear clean clothes, and get medical care. The neighbors help Wink escape, and they all return home so Hushpuppy can make friends with the aurochs.
This “little mouse that roared” has just been nominated for four Oscars, so after charming art house audiences all summer, it is now available in many urban multiplexes. Director Benh Zeitlin and his young team, making their very first feature film together, sensed that they had a chance to hit a home run, so they decided to swing hard for the bleachers. The film is a critical and commercial success, and their tiny leading lady Quvenzhané Wallis is now the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. But there’s something about all this that sets my teeth on edge.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has just arrived at your local multiplex! This summer’s art house darling, released on DVD on December 4, 2012, received four Oscar nominations last week (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay). So now we all get another chance to catch it (or watch it again) on the big screen.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about all of this. I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild in July, and while I liked some parts of it a great deal, I thought other parts were a bit much. However, dedicated as I am to women filmmakers, once a woman’s name appears on the list of Best Adapted Screenplay nominees, she has my full attention. So back I went, to see what, if anything, I had missed the first time.
The main character in Beasts is a precocious kid named “Hushpuppy” (Quvenzhané Wallis). Hushpuppy, who is six years old or so, is fully present in the natural world which surrounds her. Miracles abound—insects, plants, and animals—all of which delight her senses with their smells and sounds. Her eager fingers reach out to feel the heartbeat of the universe.
The man-made world, on the other hand, is ugliness incarnate. Hushpuppy lives alone in a ramshackle dwelling on the edge of collapse. Her father “Wink” (Dwight Henry) lives a few yards away in a “house” of his own that’s in an equal state of disrepair. Every once in a while, Wink reaches into a cooler, extracts a plucked chicken, throws it on a grill, and calls out “feeding time.” Hushpuppy races in, tearing ravenously at the meat with both hands. There are no plates, forks or knives at Wink’s place, and certainly nothing resembling a napkin.
Hushpuppy is also remarkably self-sufficient. When Wink isn’t around, she uses a blow torch to start the stove so she can heat up a can of cat food. Along with spoons, Hushpuppy has other things left behind by her mother. She recreates “Mama” by draping clothes over a chair, talking to “Mama” as she stirs her supper in a stewpot.
Life in this lush green primitive Eden is interrupted by the arrival of a big storm. Somehow Wink and Hushpuppy survive and once it’s over, they float along with other stragglers on a world of water until they’re finally desperate enough to do something that calls attention, at which point aliens from another world swoop in and move them all to a sterile white air conditioned box filled with—eek—pillows and blankets, and cots connected to oxygen pumps and IV drips. Stripped of her dirty jeans and muddy boots, Hushpuppy is transformed into an angelic little girl in a pale blue dress; her hair, once a wild, kinky cloud, is now combed, braided, and pinned close to her head.
It turns out that Wink is very ill, and had already been hospitalized even before the storm. We kinda sorta knew this already, of course, but now that he’s in captivity, people try to treat him. Wink wants none of it, and Hushpuppy cannot rest until she gets him home. And so, like the kids in E.T., all the neighbors pull together to help them escape. No pretty hand-me-down dresses for Hushpuppy; only Hushpuppy knows what Wink really needs.
I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something very bizarre about all of this. Am I the only one who notices that we meet Hushpuppy when she is very close to the age Sasha Obama was when she first appeared on the world stage in 2008? At a time when two lovely young African American girls are growing up in The White House, audiences are asked to cheer instead for an African American girl who lives in a shack?
These two girls, Sasha and her sister Malia, are the daughters of the first African American First Lady in history, a highly-educated woman with a BA from Princeton and a JD from Harvard. Michelle Robinson Obama is a fashion icon as well as one of the most beloved people on the entire planet; Hushpuppy’s absent Mama has abandoned her daughter, leaving her with tatters.
The signature achievement of President Obama’s first term, the thing for which he has been most excoriated, was increased access to healthcare (“Obamacare”). And yet here is a film—a film which appeared in the middle of President Obama’s reelection campaign—which implicitly asks audiences to vote against healthcare. Wink doesn’t want treatment; Wink wants his freedom. Better to die early than spend time constrained by the steel chains of middle class mores?
But it’s all been done with such dedication and youthful energy that reading over what I’ve just written makes me feel like a bitter old hag. Hushpuppy’s world is precise in every detail, and so beautifully filmed by cinematographer Ben Richardson that all the raw colors glow. Composer Dan Romer’s soaring score elevates the inspiring “will to prevail” message, aided by well-placed songs by the Lost Bayou Ramblers (“Mammoth Waltz”) and Fats Waller (“Until the Real Thing Comes Along”) which bring the soundtrack back down to earth as needed.
Director Benh Zeitlin and his whole team, making their very first feature film together, sensed that they had a chance to hit a home run, so they decided to swing hard for the bleachers. Working outside the system, Zeitlin and his Casting Director Michael Gottwald (who also has a Producer credit) chose to people Hushpuppy’s world with Louisiana locals (some trained but most non-professional), and then reportedly tested thousands of children until they finally zeroed in on their tiny leading lady.
Quvenzhané Wallis, the daughter of a teacher, is now the youngest person ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Quvenzhané (pronounced kwuh-VEN-zhuh-nay) is certainly a presence, and the camera clearly loves her face, but is “Nazie” (that’s her nickname) really “an actress”? Dressed for the Cannes Film Festival last June in finery beyond Hushpuppy’s wildest dreams, Nazie appears to be an exuberant and very pretty little girl… But oh, the story behind the story makes such great copy!
And what of screenwriter Lucy Alibar, the woman who wrote the original stage play—Juicy and Delicious—on which all of this is said to be based? With Benh Zeitlin (Hollywood’s new “Boy Wonder”) taking up most of the print space and Quvenzhané Wallis (Hollywood’s new “pixie”) in all of the pictures, no one has much interest in Lucy Alibar right now. What’s my evidence? Here’s what you get if you look up Lucy Alibar on Wikipedia today: “The page ‘Lucy Alibar’ does not exist.”
From Stage to Screen
Please do not read until after you have seen Beasts of the Southern Wild.
It’s a good thing I didn’t write a review of Beasts of the Southern Wild last summer (when I first saw it), because Lucy Alibar is not a very easy person to learn about, and I’m sure that would have made me nuts. The day after the Oscar nominations, Google had 107,000 search results for “Lucy Alibar” versus 1,080,000 search results for “Benh Zeitlin.” Search results for Benh with no mention of Lucy were plentiful; search results for Lucy with no mention of Benh were rare. However, it is now possible to purchase Juicy and Delicious from Amazon (with an informative preface by Alibar called “Once There Was a Hushpuppy”), and relentless online digging turns up some interesting supplementary information.
Juicy and Delicious was first performed on stage in 2007. “We did it at the Tank/Collective Unconscious in Soho,” says Alibar in her preface (although the 2007 date comes from a theatre site called Doollee.com). In the Cast of Characters section, Alibar describes Hushpuppy as “a sweet little Southern boy. Not the sharpest knife in the box.” Hushpuppy’s daddy (simply called “Daddy”) is described as “a big, scary Southern man with a glass eye and a Georgia Bulldogs hat.” Hushpuppy’s mama (simply called “Mamma”) is “just a figment of his imagination. No one else in the play can ever see or hear Mama except Hushpuppy.” Additional female characters—a nurse, a stripper/waitress, and a Japanese woman—are to be “played by the actress playing Mamma.” The only other adult woman in the play is Hushpuppy’s teacher “Miss Bathsheba.” And yes, Juicy and Delicious has aurochs, described as “big, scary, extinct bulls, as seen in cave paintings at Lascaux.”
The basic plot of Beasts of the Southern Wild comes directly from Juicy and Delicious: a motherless kid named Hushpuppy lives with his father in the rural South. Hushpuppy’s father is very ill and likely dying. Hushpuppy learns about aurochs from his teacher Miss Bathsheba: “For an aurochs, the perfect breakfast was a sweet, juicy little cave baby,” Miss Bathsheba (played in the film by Gina Montana) tells her class. “They would gobble cave babies down right in front of their cave parents.”
As his father gets closer to death, Hushpuppy transposes all his fears onto the aurochs. Daddy fights off the aurochs, and tries to teach Hushpuppy how to survive without him. These scenes, midway through Juicy and Delicious are almost identical to scenes in Beasts of the Southern Wild (although in Beasts of the Southern Wild, of course, Hushpuppy is a little girl rather than a little boy).
For instance, Daddy challenges Hushpuppy to arm wrestle and then lets him win: “Come on, Hushpuppy, show me them guns. Guns. Guns. Guns. You the man, Hushpuppy. Who the man?” Hushpuppy: “I the man!” Daddy: That’s right you the man! You my man! No cryin’.” Little Nazie is such a live wire in this scene that even a hard heart like mine is totally smitten.
Many of the visual hooks also come from Juicy and Delicious such as the cat food, the blow torch, and the flood, not to mention Hushpuppy’s visit to the mysterious woman (played in the film by Jovan Hathaway) who cooks for him and opens beer bottles with her teeth. Even the film’s title comes from Juicy and Delicious.
Miss Bathsheba: “Pay attention! It’s the end of the world. Here’s y’all’s last lesson. Imagine: I’m trapped in Georgia after a quantum physical Holocaust. Surrounded by beasts of the Southern Wild…”
So if all of this is to be found in Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, then why is Benh Zeitlin credited with co-writing the screenplay? Answer: Moving the story from Georgia to New Orleans and adding the Hurricane Katrina overlay, all of this appears to come from Benh Zeitlin.
A lot of background information about Benh Zeitlin is summarized on his Wikipedia page (Zeitlin’s education, the names and professions of his parents, etc), but the only thing that’s really important to me now is this part: “He moved to New Orleans while making his first short film, Glory at Sea, in 2008.” In other words, Juicy and Delicious (first performed on stage in 2007) predates Glory at Sea (released in 2008).
But, wait; it’s not so simple. According to the Court 13 website, where you can actually stream Glory at Sea, Zeitlin’s move to New Orleans occurred in 2006, so these two artistic endeavors, a stage play called Juicy and Delicious and a narrative short called Glory at Sea, were created simultaneously by two young people, Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, who had already been friends for years at that point.
By the time I watched Glory at Sea yesterday, I had already done so much research that I was fully expecting it to contain all the things I didn’t like about Beasts of the Southern Wild. That’s what I expected, but I was wrong. In fact, Glory at Sea is quite good and very touching. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, Glory at Sea is narrated by a young girl (in Glory at Sea she’s called “Sophie”), but the twist is that, in Glory at Sea, Sophie is already dead. For 25 minutes, we watch a small group of Katrina survivors assemble “a boat,” which they launch into the Gulf of Mexico in search of loved ones now lost. When Sophie and her father are finally reunited, in a beautiful scene shot underwater, I cried. I actually cried while watching Glory at Sea, but I never cried while watching Beasts of the Southern Wild (although I know many other people did)… How can that be?
Glory at Sea and Beasts of the Southern Wild share many other team members behind the scenes, most especially composer Dan Romer and cinematographer Ben Richardson (although underwater cinematography is credited to Cary Fukunaga—director of Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre—done way before anyone knew his name). So when did all this talent take a wrong turn from good intentions into what David Walker calls “Squalor Porn?”
What separates Zeitlin’s two films is “assistance” from all the pros at the Sundance Institute. It’s hard to fault them. Beasts of the Southern Wild is now a critical and commercial success. But I can’t help feeling that acclaim for this film is built on the unconscious prejudices of white Liberals, prejudices they would do well to examine in private once the 2013 Oscar race is history.
PS: The phrase “beasts of the Southern Wild” actually comes from an excellent short story by Doris Betts. It was originally published in Carolina Quarterly and can be found now in a collection of stories called Beasts of the Southern Wild which was first published in 1973. The main character is a teacher named “Carol Walsh,” who spends her days trying to interest high school students in English poetry, so I am sure Betts was consciously invoking the words “My mother bore me in the southern wild…” from The Little Black Boy (one of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence).
I have no reason to believe that Alibar was consciously invoking either Betts or Blake when she used these words in Juicy and Delicious. More likely, she read Betts’ story at some point and the evocative words lodged themselves in her brain. Alibar’s father (attorney Baya M. Harrison III) survived the cancer scare which prompted his daughter’s artistic battle with the aurochs. Alibar’s mother (artist Barbara Harrison) is also totally present in her daughter’s life. Interviewed by Mark Hinson of the Tallahassee Democrat on the day of the Oscar nominations, Barbara Harrison said: “I think she had read more books by the seventh grade than I have read in my whole life. She reads like a fish drinks water.” Indeed!