Sunday, 3 March 2013

Which beasts? And how wild?

I must admit that Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a bad film. It is not a bad film in the same way as Heart of Darkness was not a bad novel. And yet.
Heart of Darkness was, in my view, an impressive novel indeed, but my view is that of a white person, who can (unforgivably) still allow herself to gloss over a more than questionable depiction of Black characters. Because if, on the one hand, HoD staged a harsh critique of the European colonial system, it did so by resorting to the very core of racialist thinking typical of its age (and yet, even then, there were people who were able to think outside the box and condemn racism for what it was: "The Horror! The Horror!") and failed to recognize that colonialism and racism go hand in hand. HoD is definitely racist, as Chinua Achebe has largely demonstrated, and yet many of us readers still find it impressive (I would find it hard, however, to describe it as beautiful). So, can a racist narrative still be appreciated? Should the answer be no, we would have to discard most white narratives on earth as unreadable, unseeable, unbearable. And maybe we should. But surely it would be more helpful to make the effort to understand (discern) the dynamics of racialist thinking as expressed in past narratives in order not have them reproduced all over again in a world that some fancy to be post-ethnic and colorblind (alas, some do buy into that fantasy).
Now to the point. Even if I was somehow suspicious of its title, I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild with great expectations, genuinely convinced I would like it. I did indeed enjoy most of it, but at the same time I found it highly disturbing and left the cinema with a growing sense of discomfort: had I been ‘enjoying’ a racist narrative? Don’t get me wrong, but, if you are white, you must ask yourself that kind of question, because this is the only way to start being actively anti-racist. Anti-racism must start from inside, by scrutinizing the structures of power and pleasure which have made their way into our unconscious. I, a white spectator among an exclusively white crowd, had found the little angry girl sweet and pleasurable, and her alcoholic and violent father equally charming. Would I have experienced the same delight, had these two characters been white? Definitely not. Had the two protagonists been white, I would have freaked out at the abuse the child is subjected to by her instinct-driven father. I would have found the animal-like representation of the two characters outrageous. And probably I would not have found the two of them utterly breath-taking in their beauty. But BotSW is fantasy, one might argue. Sure, and so was HoD. And yet.
Why should a fantasy film resort to that kind of primitivism that we tried so hard to get rid of when we realized that the ‘noble savage’ was an invention of racialist thinking? Why do the same old stereotypes of angry Black femininity, violent Black masculinity and the association of Black bodies with nature reemerge one more time and still strike a chord? Why is it still fine for us (whites) that bestiality and wilderness should have a Black face?
If racialist thinking were, as many pretend, a thing of the past, I suspect we wouldn’t find such a film particularly enjoyable.

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