When the film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, was released, I did not see it in the theaters. I read the reviews. It was described as surreal, a fantasy. It was said to present fortitude in the midst of “a desolate wilderness of poverty where a small community struggles to survive.” No, thanks.” Then I started reading things about it’s lead actress, the then 7-year-old, Quvenzhané Wallis. So, I purchased the DVD to support her, and the filmmakers. It had set on my shelf for months, but then I finally watched it. It is like being able to watch The Odyssey from its contemporary vantage point, or the telling of the fables that sustained people through centuries. Beasts of the Southern Wild provided an experience that has left me tingling inside, still.
The power of the visual image is in its potential to stir the human imagination to create a moment unlike the reality of seeing a picture and knowing that it is whatever medium it is; that someone framed it or not; that someone else hung it or propped it, or strung it together with other images in a magic of technology. This power is manifest in that moment when we suspend our disbelief, and give our humanity over to this interaction where the eye tells the brain to tell the heart to beat faster and for the innards to glow with each quickened breath.
Such was my experience viewing Beasts of the Southern Wild. I was given the gift of sustained joy that comes from the power of the visual image multiplied into a moving picture and combined with primordial storytelling. I think that Joseph Campbell would have loved this movie. Bruno Bettleheim would have loved this movie. The ancient Greeks and philosophers would have loved this movie. African griots would love this movie. And those of us like me, who have been longing, searching for a hero’s journey in which to not only imagine, but to also see myself within such a quest; to recognize that the quest is mine and ongoing, and to be heartened by this fact.
Stories of the African-American sojourn have been filmed many times. The images have been created and recreated to tell of noble and ignoble acts, suffering, triumph (even if historically short-lived), but never images of power and transformation. Never, until now, with the macroscopic images of a small child in Beasts of the Southern Wild. These are not images of segregated poverty nor of subjugation through racial divides. These images project a humanity as raw and joyful as life can be, should be.
The young filmmakers who made this work of art created a vision of the heroic that translates across communities. It translates to anywhere that people have made a conscious decision about how they will live, not how much money they will have. It is a vision of true survival, the survival of the human spirit as one among many spirits in the natural world.
If you look, truly look and release yourself to this film, what you will find is the imperative to face the question: what are the important things of life? Why survive? What must we treasure and protect and therefore nourish in our youth and the generations that follow them. Perhaps it is that we, African-Americans, will ever only sojourn in this country until we again take up these profound questions en masse. Perhaps it is the same with all of us here.
In the film, there are so many instances of sharing and concern for the welfare of others. And, there is a strong differentiation made between the sharing and concern that respects the individual’s autonomy and the sharing and concern that is imposed on the powerless. For the very first time, I feel that I have the beginnings of an inkling about why there are people of extremely limited material means who refuse charity. And for the very first time, I have been presented with images that recognize material limitations as the least of our concerns.
Survival is not the fare served up via reality TV. It is not making sure that you not only keep up, but have more than the “Joneses.” Survival resides in an active intellect and the creativity that accompanies it. Survival allows us to join with others, not to oppress them with our power and possessions. In survival we come to recognize ourselves. Survival insists on the lusty scream of joy. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a model, not a template, but a model of survival. It is wonderful!